An end to battery blues may be coming, but not tomorrow

07th May 2017
An end to battery blues may be coming, but not tomorrow
Image courtesy WHICH magazine ( UK)

 A failing battery is the biggest pain point of mobile phone users. Finally industry is trying to make them better, rather than bigger. Here's a checklist of recent developments
By Anand Parthasarathy
Bangalore, May 7 2017: The customer is always right, did someone say?  Not always.  Sometimes,  delivering what customers demand, can be dangerous.  Phone batteries are striking examples. Consider:
The computing power of your phone grows exponentially every year. Today's Octa-core processor is 8 times more powerful than what you were using just 5 years ago. The latest iPhone  has  16 times  the power of the first edition, which came just 9 years ago. Storage, camera specs, everything grows from version to version -- and so does our appetite for  downloading and watching  pixel-heavy video, and  keep multiple social media apps -- Twitter, Whatsapp, Facebook --  simultaneously open.
All this places severe demand on the phone's power source.  Gone are the days when  your Nokia 3310 classic ran for a week after recharge -- because all you did was make calls or send text messages. Today  we demand that our phone batteries are good for at least one day. So manufacturers  make them bigger and bigger: Last year,  some brands like Gionee Marathon and Asus Zenfone Max  crossed 5000 mAh.  Then, we demanded that  bigger batteries should not translate into bigger phones.
The customer is king, right? So the makers squeezed and squeezed --  to fit these jumbo batteries into  limited space -- like  Cinderella's step sisters trying to squeeze their feet into the glass slipper.  The result? Something's gotta give.  The Perry Mason-like "Case of the Combustible Phone" was  mainly -- but not wholly -- a Samsung story. Throughout last year, there were episodes of  phone batteries igniting, mainly because they had been squeezed into impossibly small  enclosures, without allowing space for a little natural expansion with warming.  Samsung is not saying so explicitly, but we can come to our own conclusions: The latest Galaxy S8 handsets launched last month, have  gone for smaller-capacity batteries around 3000 mAh, compared to the ill fated Galaxy Note7.   And Samsung has instituted a rigorous 8-stage test for phone batteries to ensure their safety.  The craze for whopper batteries seems to have died down somewhat across the industry.  But the question on every consumer's mind is this:  Can you make batteries better rather than bigger?
As of today, there is no good answer.  Why?
Because, unlike  all other parts of a mobile phone -- processor, display, camera, storage -- battery technology, has hardly evolved in the quarter century since  Sony introduced the Lithium battery and later the Lithium-ion rechargeable battery.  This is true across the entire battery business.  Incredible but true: your car battery is essentially the same technology  that we studied in school as the Zinc-Carbon  cell, that was invented  by Leclanche in 1866.  To achieve miniaturisation, Sony used  the same carbon as the negative pole or cathode but replaced the anode or positive pole with  a  compound of Lithium, the lightest of all metals. The semi fluid in between was a salt of Lithium.
A shortened  version of this article  appears today
in Deccan Chronicle  

No one has come up with a better option since 1991 -- so Lithium Ion is the only technology used in small portable batteries even today.  What they did not tell us is: there is a  small chance -- 2 or 3 in a million -- that a Lithium ion cell can burst into flames.   This is something the industry knew from the beginning, but decided to live with -- on your behalf. Now we know --  and enough of us are  angry at being made the innocent users of dangerous technology. So finally,  consumer pressure is forcing industry and academia to look for safer, more efficient alternatives. Engineers have been pushing the limits of Li-ion technology for decades. But   Li-ion  batteries have gone about as far as they can go. They have reached an energy density of about 300 watts per kilogram, which is getting close to the theoretical maximum.
Lithium-Ion alternatives
Here is a rundown of current research efforts. But remember, none of these are anywhere close to commercial realization:

  • Last week  an announcement by Canada-based McGill University and HydroQuebec,   held out the hope that  batteries  might charged themselves -- from the sun. In a communication to Nature magazine, the researchers  say they have  been able to  create a charging process using light as the energy instead of electricity.  They are now working to  build  the second half, allowing energy produced at the cathode to be stored at the anode.  Their hybrid solar battery is still a few years away from realization -- and they have a half million dollar grant to make it happen.
  • According to Nikkie Technology Online, by using Sulphur as an electrode, Sony is working towards sharply  increasing the efficiency of  existing batteries. Sony plans to use this technology to boost battery life of its mobile phones by almost 40 percent.
  • At Stanford  University, they are betting on aluminium. "We have developed a rechargeable aluminum battery that may replace existing storage devices, such as alkaline batteries, which are bad for the environment, and lithium-ion batteries, which occasionally burst into flames,” said Hongjie Dai, Professor of Chemistry at Stanford. “Our new battery won’t catch fire, even if you drill through it.”
  • Why not use air as a source of electrons to drive Lithium batteries? Lithium-air, or lithium-oxygen, batteries are often considered to be the 'ultimate' battery due to their theoretical energy density, which is ten times that of traditional lithium-ion units, making them comparable to gasoline. The main research in this area is being done at Cambridge University -- but the claim that Lithium-Air is 90% more efficient than Lithium-Ion is  the subject of controversy in the scientific community.

As one can see,  all these are in the realm of research and no new technology is going to reach our phone batteries in the near future. So what do we do?  
Fast Charges
If we are forced to  recharge every day, at least let us do it faster! Here there are tidings of joy:  Fast charge is here.  Qualcomm has created a technology in its phone chips called QuickCharge  which is used by brands like Motorola, Samsung, HTC and others.  Oppo has its own technology called Super VOOC Flash Charge.  One Plus phones use something called DashCharge  and has coined a motto we can empathise with: Less time in the socket, more time in the pocket.
The difference  between a standard charger and a quick charger can be dramatic,  half an hour, against 2-3 hours.  But remember, both phone and charger must incorporate the technology -- which means you must use the original charging cable to experience a rapid charge.|
Finally,  there is always the less convenient but failsafe option of carrying a power bank. Many of these now come with a solar panel, so you don't have to look to an electrical socket to keep the bank charged. 
Clearly, there are no gee-whiz moments in the offing for those looking for  batteries that are both light and long lasting and safe. This is a work in progress -- and all these research efforts will finally, hopefully,  bear fruit.  Meanwhile   we have to wait -- and yes, charge up once more!