The battery research that could change your phone, and the world
31st Jan 2014 | 14:00
Has it run out of juice?
There have been some incredible promises in battery technology, from juice packs which can be charged just by moving them, to phones powered by fuel cells. These are things which have the potential to transform the way we use our handsets. But so often they get reported on and then go M.I.A, disappearing back into labs only to reappear years later or just be quietly forgotten about.
We didn't want to leave them to disappear though, so we did some digging and found out where things are now for some of the most intriguing battery related projects that we've reported on in the last few years.
One of the most exciting areas of battery research that we've covered is the use of kinetic energy to recharge a battery. The idea being that just by moving your hand while holding your phone or potentially even by just walking around with your phone in your pocket you could charge it.
In theory it's a game-changing idea as it would mean that you'd no longer be in danger of ever running out of battery, or at least if you did then a vigorous shake of your phone could eke some life back into it, rather than you having to rush home to charge it.
This was the plan being put forward by U.S start-up M2E Power back in 2007. The company claimed to have developed a way to make this a reality and stated that its power packs would also use 30 to 40 percent less heavy metals than conventional lithium-ion batteries.
Back then it looked like it would be at least 2010 before development had reached the point where these batteries would find their way into phones, but that was several years ago and we're still stuck plugging our handsets into chargers every night.
So what happened? Well, back in June 2009 M2E Power announced that it had changed its focus to the vehicle market, and then a month later the company had sold itself to Motionetics.
Motionetics was also working on kinetic energy technologies, so the hope of motion powered phones may not have been lost, though the company's focus seems to be on military applications.
However there's hardly a mention of the company online, just a few references in old articles and a dead website, so it doesn't look like Motionetics is still around.
We were able to get in touch with Eric Apfelbach, the ex-CEO of M2E Power and we asked him what went wrong. Apparently the technology used by M2E Power involved a compressed peak linear magnetic field which the inventor claimed could produce more power at a significantly higher power density than conventional fixed magnetic devices.
Unfortunately it turned out that the calculations surrounding the capability of the technology were wrong and there was very little which could be done with it in a commercial sense. Motionetics bought the company in the hopes of applying the technology to Department of Defense projects.
Apfelbach moved on to greener pastures as the CEO of ZBB Energy, a company which develops and sells energy storage and power control technologies, but sadly kinetic phone chargers are not among its products.
Chance of it happening: Less likely than a flying pig.
Back in 2011 we wrote about a technology being worked on at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology which would allow users to charge a phone or laptop simply by typing on its keyboard.
Granted, even back then phones were largely ditching keyboards, but a technology like this could lead to a resurgence in them and could also potentially be implemented into tablet keyboards.
The idea was that piezoelectric films could be placed underneath each key of a keyboard or keypad, allowing it to generate a small amount of charge each time a key is pressed.
When we wrote about it in 2011 it was only able to extend the battery life of a laptop by around 10 percent but it was thought that eventually it would be able to charge devices a substantial amount.
We got in touch with Dr. Madhu Bhaskaran, co-leader of the research group, to find out what's going on with it and the news is a lot better than for M2E. The technology is still being developed and this is being done in tandem with work on flexible electronics.
The flexible electronics research is promising in itself, as it could go way beyond the likes of the Samsung Galaxy Round and LG G Flex and lead to devices which can be stretched, screwed up and are virtually unbreakable.
Not only that, but it also ties into the piezoelectrics research, as according to Dr. Bhaskaran it could be possible to combine piezoelectrics and flexible substrates, which would provide a relatively easy way to bend the piezoelectric material in order to generate electrical energy.
The bad news is that there's still a decade or more of work to be done before the technology makes it into consumer products according to Dr. Bhaskaran.
Chance of it happening: Reasonable, but we'll be waiting a long time for it.
True all-day batteries
You might think that your current smartphone has a battery that lasts all day, but try using it non-stop and we'd wager it will conk out long before nightfall.
That may not always be the case though. Back in 2011, Texas Instruments claimed to be working on a chip that could offer 'true all day computing' and the company planned to release it in 2013.
Here we are in 2014 and our phones are still dying alarmingly quickly and the chip that Texas Instruments was talking about is nowhere to be seen.
So what happened? Well the most recent smartphone chipset by Texas Instruments is the OMAP 5. That was originally due to hit the market in 2012 but it ultimately wasn't available until 2013. The delay to that could have caused a hold-up to its successor, which was to be the chip Texas Instruments was making its battery life claims over.
So will we see the OMAP 6 (or whatever it was to be called) this year instead? Unfortunately it doesn't look likely. Towards the end of 2011 it emerged that Texas Instruments was trying to sell its OMAP division.
According to sources who spoke with SemiAccurate, the attempts to find a buyer failed as OMAP is so tied up in the rest of the business that selling it without harming other divisions was impossible.
So Texas Instruments is still theoretically able to work on new OMAP chipsets, but it doesn't seem very interested in doing so. In September 2012 the company announced that it planned to wind down its operations in smartphone and tablet oriented OMAP chips and focus instead on embedded applications, such as automotive, industrial and robotics.
In November 2012 1700 jobs were cut as part of that shift and our hopes for OMAP 6 were dashed. While it's not impossible that Texas Instruments will return to the field of mobile chipsets, for now we'll just have to hope someone else can deliver on its battery boosting promise.
Other manufacturers are already working on it and in fact Samsung made a similar claim in 2012, stating that its batteries would last from when you get up to when you go to bed with average to moderately heavy use. The company has largely delivered on that, but heavy use throughout the day would still see your power pack die.
We don't know whether OMAP 6 would have been any better and sadly it doesn't look like we ever will.
Chance of it happening: It won't be coming from Texas Instruments, but other manufacturers are slowly getting there.
A fuel cell future
Way back in 2007 we wrote about how fuel cells might soon start to make their way into electronics. Seven years later and well, they haven't really.
But all is not lost, as recently a fuel cell phone charger called 'Upp' was released. So far it's only available in Africa, where its lack of requirement for the grid is especially useful, as finding a socket can be easier said than done, particularly if you live in one of the many villages that are totally off the power grid.
But now it's on its way to the U.S, where it will carry a price tag of $199 (around £120). There's no word on if or when it will hit the UK, but the U.S is a step in the right direction.
It has a detachable, re-usable cartridge with 25,000 mAh of charge, which is enough to charge most phones five times over. Beyond the fact that there's no requirement for the grid to use it, which could seriously cut carbon emissions if fuel cells become commonplace, the Upp and other fuel cells don't rely on finite resources, like the lithium that we currently use for batteries.
So a future where fuel cells truly replace lithium-ion batteries may make sense. That future is likely a long way off yet though as we're only just starting to see portable fuel cell chargers, while the actual juice packs in our phones are still lithium-ion.
There are issues to be addressed before it can happen too, such as the fact that building a fuel cell into a phone or tablet would almost certainly require it to be bigger and heavier than we're used to.
If fuel cell chargers take off though then fuel cell powered phones could be a very real long term possibility.
Chance of it happening: Lithium is a finite resource so one day something will have to replace it and fuel cells seem like a good bet, but it's likely a long way off.
- Don't let battery woes get you down. Stay charged for longer with our in depth guide