updated 9/21/2004 1:55:33 PM ET 2004-09-21T17:55:33

For all the truly amazing and useful technology advancements made in just the last five years (Wi-Fi, internet phone calls and wireless e-mail to name three), progress on the fundamental technology that drives the devices — power — has been exasperatingly slow. That's the bad news. The worse news is that it's not going to get markedly better.

Moore's Law says that semiconductors and devices double in functionality every 18 months. But rechargeable batteries increase in capacity only five to 10 percent per year. But even that is not as positive as it sounds. The increase in battery capacity is outstripped by ever-increasing advancements in chips and screens, which chew up a lot of power.

"It's true. There has not been a major change in battery chemistry since lithium-ion," says Dr. Lawrence Dubois, vice president in the physical sciences division of SRI International, a nonprofit research and development company. "We are not seeing the doubling or tripling of battery life that we'd like."

That's because, essentially, we're running out of chemistry. Batteries, whether alkaline or rechargeable, are made primarily from materials derived from the periodic table of elements, and "There are no new elements in the periodic table," says Dubois. "All the cathode materials [a major component in batteries] have been explored already."

Lower-power semiconductors needed
So for the next several years, the best we can do is squeeze more out of existing battery technology. That will happen primarily by using better power-management software and buying computers with lower-power semiconductors. Intel and Transmeta, for example, have developed low-power chips for laptop computers.

Worldwide, the demand for better batteries is soaring as people gobble up PDAs, cell phones, smartphones, Blackberries and iPods; not to mention camcorders, portable medical equipment, Game Boys and DVD players.

"The demand [for better power sources] is acute," says Jim Balcom, chief executive of PolyFuel, a startup company that's working on advanced membranes for fuel cell batteries.

Many of the shorter-term advancements will be in the form of, well, form. SRI, for one, is helping to develop smaller, thinner, lighter, flexible batteries that can be used in devices in shapes and sizes that haven't even been conceived yet.

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