The energy issue has been an escalating worry to the mobile industry for the past five years now. The mobile technology is growing in giant leaps, and advanced software, high resolution displays and all that extensive functionality we have in our pockets suck the life out of our devices’ batteries. The battery progress is years behind the rest of the smart tech, and large companies are wrecking the best brains they can afford to hire in a rush to produce a smaller, more powerful and self-sufficient battery that would bring life to ever-shrinking wearables and power-hungry smartphones and tablets.
We may see a battery that recharges itself by sucking power out of the air alone, or television, WiFi or cellular signals in the generations of smartphones that would follow after the technological challenge has been resolved. That may not happen in 2014; in fact, we may have to wait another decade to see that happen, but let us see where the progress stands for now.
Apple’s engineers have tried for years now to build a battery that would charge itself by consuming solar energy from solar plates embedded in iPhones’ and iPods’ bodies. Several people at Apple have confirmed the technology is still under development somewhere in Cupertino cellars.
Silicon Valley businesses push through with wearable watches, Google Glasses, sports trackers, and all little things smart. Likewise, smart home technology becomes ever more miniscule; with tiny webcams and sensors you can put anywhere. That entire tech requires better power sources, and the limitations imposed by the current outdated batteries render many of the wearables not just yet ready for the prime time.
Consumers may not want to spend $1.500 on Google Glass knowing that its battery only runs for two hours, and to charge it you need to remove it.
And so, the rivalry between Google and Apple continues, but this time in the challenge to invent a smarter and better battery than the one we have now.
A123 Systems is a battery manufacturer for electric cars that also invests in start-ups working on new battery technologies. Its representative says a need for better battery was not there five years ago. However, now that we see the market need, more manufacturers want to invest in the power technology.
Computer chips are doubling in speed every few years; digital screens are increasingly brighter and sharper; while the battery technology is largely outdated. So far, smartphone manufacturers have largely relied on the good old lithium-ion battery minor improvements and energy-efficient hardware and software.
The greatest challenge with new power technology is in its safety – it is very difficult to ensure a super-smart battery does not turn into a miniscule bomb if treated the wrong way, as was the case with this 13-year old girl whose iPhone exploded in her pants pocket when she sat down and inadvertently shorted the device. Thus, the new batteries require extensive testing and even more exhaustive study by regulatory organs before they approve them. Even after that, we the end-consumers will not be able to see it on our devices until big market players like Samsung, Microsoft and Apple adopt them in their products.
Apple’s Next Battery
Tony Fadell, an ex-VP of Apple behind iPod and iPhone development, suggests it is more realistic to focus on improving the lithium-ion batteries and other hardware components than trying to invent a new battery. “Betting on new battery technology to me is a fool’s errand,” says Fadell, currently the chief executive at Nest, the household thermostats manufacturer acquired by Google just last month. “Don’t wait for the battery technology to get there because it is incredibly slow, ” he says.
Fadell is one of the “fathers of the iPod” and he has been responsible for the launch of Apple’s most successful products. He says tech wizards at Apple have been working on a smarter battery for years now, but the solar power method did not prove practical since smartphones dwell in people’s pockets and bags when people are on the go, and artificial lights produce insufficient amounts of energy to charge the solar battery in the homes and offices.
As a result, we keep getting Apple’s newest MacBook Pro, Air, iPads and iPhones with lithium-ion batteries, energy-efficient chips and power-saving software algorithms.
As usual, Apple declines to comment on technology under development, but the facts state that there is something big going on in the power department. Apple has been hiring top engineers with expertise in battery tech and design from companies like Toyota, Tesla and A123 Systems. In addition, Apple purchased Passif Semiconductor, a low-energy communication chips start-up.
For its iWatch, Apple has been experimenting with a battery that would charge itself wirelessly with magnetic induction while similar technology has already been implemented on some Nokia smartphones. In such smartphones, the batteries recharge when you place the device on a magnetic charging plate, where an electric current creates a magnetic field, which in its turn creates a voltage to power the battery.
People behind Apple smartwatch project say the company has been testing solar power-charging method, but years may pass till the battery like this can become reality. The idea is to make a smartwatch with a curved screen with a solar-charging layer on it, which would power up the device while the user is outdoors. Besides, last autumn, Apple’s job postings included several positions vacant for solar energy engineers.
One more technology under development in Cupertino tech labs is a battery that would get charged through movement, a method already used in some ultra-modern watches. As a person swings his arm while walking, the motion could launch a tiny charging station generating enough power to charge a small device. As a matter of fact, Apple has patented this technology back in 2009.
In July last year, Apple filed for another patent on a flexible battery that would be so miniscule it could fit into a small wristwatch. Even though it would be a tradition lithium-ion battery, it would be very thin and curved, and would easily work with a flexible solar layer on a smartwatch display.
Google and Samsung
Unsurprisingly, the world’s innovation visionary Google has been working on the battery problem, too. “Nobody wants to have to run and find a charger at 3 p.m. every day,” says Motorola Vice President Mark Randall, and even though Google sold Motorola to Lenovo, this comment may mean Google has big plans for the battery development. In fact, a better battery is so important the issue has been escalated to the top levels, and Larry Page said battery life extension on mobile devices was “prime for reinvention.” “There is real potential to invent new and better experiences,” he said during the last year earnings report.
Likewise, Samsung has been working on several types of better batteries for wearable tech, and last year the company introduced compact, curved batteries that can work with wristbands. In addition, Samsung introduced its Dream Battery that runs on solid electrolytes instead of the liquid or polymer electrolytes used in lithium-ion batteries. The solid electrolyte technology eliminates the risk of explosions and covers many other safety problems known with lithium-ion batteries in wearable and flexible gadgets.
Start-ups and scientists
At the other end of the spectrum, we have numerous start-ups and universities with technologies under development that may be even more ambitious than those of Apple or Samsung. Some sound too futuristic to be real, but they are attracting venture capital and media attention. For example, uBeam start-up in Mountain View is working on a technology where devices would pull energy from the air alone. As surreal as it sounds, the start-up is being funded by prominent Silicon Valley investors – Yahoo’s chief executive Marissa Mayer, Founders Funs and the Andreessen Horowitz firm. uBeam’s method involves piezoelectricity, where a charge is created of certain crystals and ceramics vibrations. Meredith Perry, uBeam’s founder, says “Battery technology advancements are lagging far behind advancements in mobile tech, while power consumption rate is increasing as consumers demand more from their devices. When wireless power is everywhere, battery life and charging rates will no longer be critical factors in mobile devices as our devices will always be charging.”
Another interesting tech is under development at Ampirus start-up, whose founder Yi Cui is a Stanford professor, who wants to replace the carbon anodes to silicon in lithium-ion batteries. He says silicon has ten times storage capacity of carbon, but silicon is expandable and breakable, so what Ampirus folks do is cover silicon with a soft and stretchy polymer, something similar that we have in contact lenses. The polymer heals miniature cracks as the battery operates.
One more research at the University of Washington is trying to produce a wireless device that would make communication possible without the battery altogether. The technology involves deriving energy from WiFi and cellular signals, television and other waves that are in abundance in the air already, says an assistant professor Shyamnath Gollakota. “The idea is you have signals around you, so why generate more new signals to communicate?” he says. Of course, commercial smartphones would still require a powerful battery to support the display and software functions, but texting and calling would no longer consume precious battery juices with this signal-harvesting technology.