How a '70s technology is stopping smartphone progress…and why that might change soon

batteries lead image
Credit: Patrick Nelson

An apparent breakthrough in lumbering battery innovation could quickly change the number-one issue for smartphone users… battery life. And in-turn, kick start the Internet of Things.

Battery-life is what we’re after, according to a survey on smartphones recently conducted by researcher GMI, published in the Guardian.

GMI found 29% of 18 to 24-year-olds run out of power daily, and 40% of us turn down screen brightness to conserve power.

Couple those appalling statistics with whining from pundits who reckon smartphone design has stalled, then add warnings from phone makers about creeping sales, and you might have stumbled on one reason for our love/hate relationship with phones - battery life sucks, and it hinders our entire existence.

For example, putting the house to bed — which used to involve turning a few lights off —now includes fiddling with awkward cables, and late-night scrabbling around hotel rooms, poaching power outlets, is as irritating as a poorly stocked minibar. And Airbnb isn't any better.

Silicon anode

One startup, Ampirius, thinks it might have a solution to this battery life design issue with a power-storing, sponge-like substance that riffs on existing lithium-ion battery technology.

A recent funding chunk means its solution may play sooner, rather than later.

And along with it, future mobile devices, including the Internet of Things, could obtain innovative weight-losses, size-reductions and spin a product-cycle untethered to the wall for much of the time. Thus allowing an electronics sales uptick, and a more free, happy life for consumers. Yippee.

Battery technology

It’s about time. Richard Anderson, in a recent BBC News website article about lethargic battery development in smartphones, says that commercial battery technology hasn't changed much in 50 years when you compare it to the devices it powers.

In fact, the tube-like AA has been around since the 1940s, and the lead-acid battery—the one we still use in vehicles—was invented 150 years ago.

Lithium battery technology, the chemistry used in today’s smartphones, was invented in the seventies.

What’s the problem?

Batteries are storage devices. They don’t actually make the energy, so you’d think that it wouldn’t be too hard to come up with a better chemistry for the job. But, it hasn't been that easy.

The problem consists primarily of cost, weight, and physical size. We need our stuff to get lighter and smaller in order to comply with seductive portability wants. But, chemical reactions take up space, and you need weighty metals, or other materials, to perform the reaction.

The lab geeks’ remit is to come up with chemistry that fulfills mobility requirements, but that doesn't inconveniently explode, among other things: The temporarily grounded, smoking Boeing 787s use lithium battery technology. As Boeing discovered, it’s hard to make it work right.

 Lithium technology

Without getting too technical, the latest technology uses silicon to bind lithium ions, as opposed to existing lithium technology, which uses graphite. Graphite holds less juice.

The main problem, though, is that the newer, and better, silicon expands significantly during the required chemical reaction—essentially creating trouble, wearing it out, and making it pretty unusable.

The smoking gun…or pocket

Where the newest, sponge-like silicon technology comes in is that by making the silicon expand through sponge-like cavities, not outwardly, the chemical reaction fills the cavities, rather than expands the battery, airliner, or jacket pocket.

Sunnyvale-based Ampirius’s product, based on a compromise combination of graphite and spongy silicon, originally developed at Stanford University, raised $30 million in Series C funding in January.

Department of Energy

Sebastian Anthony, in an Extreme Tech story that was published last week, describes a Department of Energy Pacific Northwest National Laboratory experiment that uses a similar Mesoporous Silicon Sponge technology, and has a battery in development that can hold about twice the amount of power as is held in an existing lithium-ion battery—of the same size, presumably. Anthony has written about Ampirius before, and says some of its sponge batteries are already being shipped.

Internet of Things goes crazy

The operative words here are “lithium” because lithium is an existing chemistry. By adapting existing, known chemistry, it’s conceivable that smaller or more powerful products could come to market much more quickly than years-off future formulae being tweaked feverishly by geniuses worldwide.

Not only will that make a lot of survey-completing 18-to-24-year-olds happy, but if it works right, it would complete a major, and currently missing, engineering puzzle piece for the next generation of smaller, more powerful mobile devices.

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