Battery Technology

Faster Processors, Higher Resolution Screens, but No Battery Improvements?

July 12, 2014 - Written By Phil Bourget

It’s phone announcement season worldwide, as it is every summer, but what do we see that’s as old hat as it comes?  Well, we hear the newer device comes with a newer, better, and faster processor, optimized to run more power-efficiently.  We hear that it comes with more or better utilized RAM, so that the system runs smoother on less RAM and less battery drain results from constant rampings-up of the processor to handle tasks and switching between them.  We hear the camera is better or with more megapixels, and the storage inside the device is able to be augmented this year with the use of a micro SD card.  We hear that the device has a bigger, more pixel-dense display this year, so it looks better, and with the couple of added milliamp hours, it performs for just as long as the previous year’s model.  Just as good?  If you pay attention to the reveals of some of the popular smartphone manufacturers and their devices, they comment how the battery is slightly larger so you get all the new stuff for the same amount of time as the last, less-powerful model.

Hold on, with the growth in smartphone size, possible pixel density, and internal specification, shouldn’t the battery, the actual reason that all of the device can even turn on or work, have some sort of improvement except ‘it’s bigger’?  Well, yes, yes it should.  Should.  But it hasn’t yet, and that’s for a very simple reason: new technology is expensive and takes time to develop and gain traction.  By technology, I mean not to refer to the device itself, or even the battery alone, but the technology, the science behind the battery cell which is currently Lithium ions.  There are newer methods of holding electricity for the devices we use to have, but they are just that: new.  And since they’re new, they’re still being more perfected, better tested, and offered up to the marketplace that device manufacturers search for their parts to order in.

Well, if there are better and more efficient ways of storing a charge, and in turn keeping your tablet powered on through that whole nine-hour teleconference call, or your device able to be powered up for long enough to make it to and through the recently heightened security when entering the United States, why aren’t they being employed?  Quick answer is we stick with what we know works, and currently that’s Lithium ions.  Long answer is that some of the new battery technologies are still in their infancy in the testing labs, making sure that they not only works but are safe and manageable for both the manufacturer and customer.  Also, some of these charge-keeping methods are being shown to manufacturers as of now, and will likely not be seen in a device until 2015 or 2016, simply due to the way and cycle of device releases and upgrades.

The attacks led by groups like Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (famous for their advances in quicker charging batteries utilizing grapheme sheets), ZAF Energy Systems (known for their recent reveal of air electrode batteries that function better as conductors with less weight and additional conductive materials), and a research team from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (who published research about nanocells, which could allow hundreds of times faster charging, and are, by the name, super small) are forging new paths and new opportunities for devices of all types and sizes to use more power but have more of it to use and use smarter.

An operating system can only get so optimized for battery life before it can’t fix the issue.  A device can only be so thin or sized because the Lithium ion battery is the largest single part of a device.  And the device can only charge so fast, regardless of the power output connecting the wall to your charging port.  So what’s next?  Batteries will change, and improve, but it will likely be not as important to manufacturers (not to say it’s not important at all, but it’s a lower priority) as compared to the ‘need to improve’ features and aesthetics, or software smoothness.