Samsung Ready To Ditch Li-Ion Smartphone Batteries For Graphene

Samsung is ready to ditch lithium-ion smartphone batteries in favor of graphene cells, according to a new rumor wave that emerged on Chinese social media network Weibo. Details on the matter remain slim, with the speculation being based on an unverified claim that the company’s Advanced Institute of Technology completed the development of its first-generation graphene batteries and will start mass-producing them next year.

As the company is unlikely to immediately license such a seminal technology, a first-party implementation of the thereof is likely to debut before Samsung’s graphene batteries become available to third-party manufacturers. The production of the unconventional cells should be handled by Samsung SDI, the main battery-making arm of the Seoul-based conglomerate. A move to graphene is predicted to allow for a major evolution of the contemporary smartphone concept, enabling higher-capacity batteries that last longer, are quicker to charge, and aren’t as dangerous in cases of catastrophic failures.

Background: Graphene has been touted as the next big thing in the smartphone industry for over half a decade now but has yet to be commercialized in the form of a mobile battery. Besides the technical difficulties of manufacturing such cells on a scale with acceptable yield rates, producing significant volumes of graphene batteries is also an expensive endeavor and one that would almost certainly cause a spike in handset prices which are record-high as it is. That’s believed to be a large part of the reason why Samsung has yet to attempt implementing such technologies into consumer-grade products, though the company hasn’t been shy about its ambitions to eventually do so.

Late last year, Samsung won a patent on a solution that would allow it to even improve existing lithium-ion batteries by adding a graphene component to the process of manufacturing those traditional cells, claiming the end result of such a production approach could be cells that charge up to five times as fast as existing modules. The company has been ramping up its efforts in the battery R&D field ever since the Galaxy Note 7 debacle from late summer of 2016 that saw it lose what analysts estimate are hundreds of millions of dollars after the entire flagship lineup was recalled due to being a proven fire hazard. Following thorough investigations, Samsung and independent regulators concluded the battery design of the Galaxy Note 7 was at fault for the ordeal, with the cell fueling the phablet being too cramped and prone to catching fire even in the most benign of circumstances.

Samsung then spent massive resources on a global apology tour that lasted for about a year, vowing to do everything in its power to prevent such an incident from happening again. Besides improving its quality-control practices and revamping some of its manufacturing operations, the company also became more aggressive with investments in new battery tech, graphene included. Huawei and Tesla are some other high-profile names that have been exploring the concept of consumer-grade graphene batteries in recent years but the technology has yet to be commercialized on any significant scale. Samsung’s tech institute previously claimed a graphene mobile battery can be fully recharged in approximately 12 minutes and have around 45-percent higher capacity than a lithium-ion cell of a comparable size. A year later, its tech is almost certainly even more advanced but the biggest issue the company has to address doesn’t have anything to do with capacities or charging speeds but yield rates in the context of flow production that’s as cost-effective as possible. Then again, Samsung is no stranger to tackling such challenges, having spent over half a decade doing so with its foldable phone project that’s now ready to be announced next month.

A number of recent reports suggested Samsung is going all-in with its 2019 smartphones after a lukewarm market response to the Galaxy S9 and Galaxy Note 9 families. Besides revamped display panels, 7nm chips, and in-display fingerprint readers, that innovation push is also expected to include rear camera setups with three and more lenses which the company already started commercializing in recent weeks with the Galaxy A7 (2018) and Galaxy A9. However, the high production costs of graphene batteries will probably keep such solutions away from Samsung’s mainstream smartphones planned to be released in 2019.

Impact: Even if the new rumors of Samsung-made graphene batteries coming soon are entirely accurate, such cells are unlikely to be found inside Samsung’s 2019 flagships - the Galaxy S10 and Galaxy Note 10. Instead, Samsung is likely to experiment with them on a smaller scale seeing how any handset using a graphene cell would likely cost a premium, especially if its other specs were also of the high-end variety. Samsung’s favorite lineup for flagship experimentation is the W series of flip phones that’s completely detached from its main Galaxy brand and only retails in China as a niche offering for nostalgic tech enthusiasts. The W2020 expected to be announced in late 2019 is hence much more likely to feature a graphene battery than any one of the company’s mainstream models. Samsung recently tested the market response to a variable-aperture camera in a similar manner, having debuted it on last year’s W2018 before bringing it to the Galaxy S9 and Galaxy Note 9 lines earlier this year.

All of that is assuming the company is actually anywhere close to commercializing graphene batteries in the smartphone segment, which is a massive undertaking that even most of the world’s best-funded tech juggernauts are still steering clear from. Besides longer battery lives and significantly faster charging times the new solution would enable, it would also be the closest thing to a guarantee that a fiasco the size of the Galaxy Note 7 one will never happen again seeing how graphene’s natural properties and conventional implementations of the thereof make it much safer and less volatile. Ultimately, graphene batteries are widely believed to be the future of the smartphone industry but how soon that future ends up becoming a reality remains to be seen. By most accounts, such solutions won’t be commercialized on any significant scale prior to at least 2020 and may take much longer to become available outside of ultra-premium products.

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