Consumer Electronics & Appliance News, Reviews & Information.

Apr 12

A look into the future of batteries

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The crux of the biscuit. Image by Bitslammer, used under Creative Commons

My life is revolving more and more around my portable electronics, and that’s taught me one important lesson.

My battery life is critical.

I use my iPod all day at work, and my cell all day as well. I haven’t graduated to any of the top rated tablets here at Vann’s, and I work at a desk, but those who need a tablet or laptop need them to work all the time.

Thankfully for the battery-bound, there is a huge amount of research going on in battery technology. And while everyone is shooting for the quantum leap in charge capacity, the research is driving, on average, a 6% a year increase in capacity. Which is significant, but not liberating.

1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. (image by Ellie Goodman, used under Creative Commons)

There’s a lot of Edison in these projects (when asked how he persevered through so many failures in creating the electric light’s filament, he responded, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”) and new materials and ideas are being tried every day, but there are some new things on the horizon that show some real promise.

Green looks good for iPad power

Apple has applied for two patents for a hydrogen-fuel based battery. Hydrogen is the most plentiful element on earth, and any thing that can be made to run on hydrogen would be a huge step towards a greener planet. Apple is claiming that these new batteries will be able to power Apple products for weeks, not hours, which would be a dream come true for users of its top rated tablet everywhere.

Water holds a lot of hydrogen. (Image by Vitroid, used under Creative Commons)

But there are lots of difficulties on the way to this dramatically different design. The new hydrogen based battery would be larger than the lithium based batteries now in use, so miniature electronics would become less miniature. And it will take Apple quite a while to find out if this technology is cost-effective, and then embed the hydrogen technology into the Apple assembly line. But if this hydrogen battery technology succeeds, it will be great step forward for a greener planet and for the extended mobile user.

Efficiency is the next big leap

grapheme - up close. (Image by U.S. Army Material Command, used under Creative Commons)

Others are working to make the technology we have work more efficiently. Scientists at Northwestern are experimenting with combining grapheme, an atom thick graphite sheet material discovered in 1962, with layers of silicon. Silicon has long been known as an excellent storage unit for lithium ions, but is very unstable, rendering it ineffective for battery use. The Northwestern scientists found that grapheme stabilizes the silicon, making it useful for batteries. So they’ve covered layers of drilled grapheme (to allow better flow of the ions) with silicon to create a battery that holds up to 10X the charge of a standard lithium battery, and will charge in less than 15 minutes.

The possibilities for this are two fold. One, you can get a charge that will last 10 times as long, giving a longer working time. Or, you can make a battery one tenth the size, allowing room for more features or allowing the electronics we use to shrink dramatically in size. The down-side, these batteries are said to be 2-5 years away from production.

Going small for bigger charges

Aligned carbon nanotubes. Image by Argonne National laboratory, used under Creative Commons

A third ship on the horizon is the Carbon Nanotube. A Nanotube is a cylinder made from atomic particles, sized at one to a few billionths of a meter (a nanometer is 1/billionth of a meter). Carbon is the traditional ion storage material in a lithium battery, and the use of Carbon Nanotubes would instantly create a lot more graphite surface area without creating larger container. So batteries stay the same size, but with more graphite for the lithium ions to grab onto, more charge can be held, providing longer battery life. Which is of course the hope for all portable electronics users. But again, this technology is said to be five years down the road.

For now, perhaps we’ll need to be satisfied with 6% growth per year powering our top rated tablets and portable products, but I’m sure hoping that these new battery technologies are on the way, because the low battery tone just went off on my cell phone. . . again.

This is exactly how I feel. (Image by Bizmac, used under Creative Commons)

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