The one thing most of us have in common is the smartphone which has become an indispensable part of our daily lives. We use it for so many things, not just communications but also to play music, take pictures, get driving directions, play games, read articles, watch video clips, and so on.
The other device most of us have in common is the “power bank” which helps to recharge our phones when we’re on the go. Today’s smartphones are so power-hungry they barely last a day without having to recharge. My phone typically runs out of power by late afternoon and I don’t even use it for a lot of things besides texting, checking e-mails and reading articles.
This is the reality of modern life. Of course it wasn’t always this way. I got my first mobile phone in 1996. It wasn’t a smartphone of course but a “dumb phone”. All it was good for was making calls and sending SMS. And the battery lasted a week without recharging.
So, why do smartphone batteries die out so fast? It’s not because batteries are getting worse. It’s that phones have made massive technological leaps and bounds while batteries have only made tiny, incremental increases in capacity.
It’s hard to imagine it but today’s smartphone that you hold in your hand is thousands of times more powerful than the computers on Nasa’s Apollo moon landing craft. All this is because of Moore’s Law which states that processing power of transistors will double every 18 months.
Unfortunately, there’s no Moore’s Law for batteries, which seem to be lagging further and further behind smart phone advances with each passing year. The technology used to power the first iPhone in mid-2007 is fundamentally still the same one used in today’s smartphones: the lithium-ion battery.
In fact, there hasn’t been any significant change in the lithium-ion battery ever since it was first commercialised by Sony in 1991. Over the years, battery makers have tweaked the chemical make-up of the lithium-ion’s electrodes or electrolyte but the improvements resulting from such efforts are small and incremental.
Improving battery technology
In order to have a breakthrough in battery technology, for example, one which can allow a smartphone to last say, a whole week without recharging, it would require new chemistry and maybe even a new form factor that’s radically different from today’s lithium-ion versions.
Many universities and start-ups are looking into new battery technologies. The US Department of Energy even has an advanced research programme for alternative energy, called ARPA-E, which funds over 75 energy storage research projects. So there’s a lot of research going on.
However, the big three battery producers of the world: Samsung, LG and Panasonic are not as interested in new technologies as they are in making gradual improvements to the existing lithium-ion battery.
Even someone as forward thinking and adventurous as Tesla’s Elon Musk is banking on improvements to lithium-ion to power his electric cars. Tesla is spending around US$5 billion (RM20 billion) to build a massive lithium-ion battery factory in Nevada.
Lithium-ion battery capacity has continually been growing over the years, although at a very slow pace — around five per cent a year. And as long as it continues to grow, big companies are not going to take a chance with new, unproven technology. At some point though, radical changes will be needed as lithium-ion can be tweaked only so much. There’ll come a time when it cannot be improved any further.
Nothing short of a reinvention of the battery will be needed because smart phones are going to continue to grow more powerful with each passing year. The wearables industry won’t be able to take off unless there are long-lasting batteries. Who wants a smart-watch or smart-glasses that need to be recharged every few hours? Such devices must be able to last at least a week between charges to be commercially viable.
Everybody agrees that electric cars are the future. They run smoothly and are very quiet. They’re also environmentally-friendly as they don’t burn gasoline and thus do not emit carbon dioxide. What’s there not to like about electric cars? Just two things: price and battery capacity.
Electric cars are more expensive than a similar capacity conventional car, largely because of the lithium-ion batteries that are so costly. Also, a fully-charged electric car still can’t go as far as a conventional car with a full tank of petrol. Unless and until cheaper and longer-lasting batteries can be designed, the electric car industry will not be able to take off in big way.
Next generation battery
Given that so many important products of the future will require cheap and longer-lasting batteries, it’s almost certain a new technology will eventually replace the lithium-ion battery. But there’ll be a long gestation period before that happens.
It’ll take years of testing and legal approvals before a new kind of battery can be introduced into the market for our phones, laptops, cars and other electrical devices. Batteries can be dangerous as was seen by the exploding Samsung Galaxy Note 7 fiasco. Regulators will want to test it rigorously before allowing it into the market.
How long will it take before a radically new battery technology emerges? It’s hard to say as there’s no imminent breakthrough at the moment. As mentioned earlier, the big battery makers are still focused on tweaking lithium-ion technology rather than looking for something to replace it.
When lithium-ion came along in the early 1990s, it facilitated the emergence of the smartphone and other portable electronic devices, which really changed our world. It has served its purpose and now something better needs to come along for progress in so many industries to continue.
When a next-generation battery — much cheaper and far longer-longer lasting — finally arrives one day, it’ll transform the way we communicate, work, travel and play. It might take 10 years or more before that happens. But when it does, it’s no exaggeration to say that it’ll be one of the most transformative technological changes of our time.