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Building a better battery

Battery makers are racing to keep up as smartphones, laptops, digital music players and portable videogame consoles gobble up more power with every additional feature.
A Medis Power Pack is plugged in as other devices and power chargers are shown.Paul Sakuma / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

For most of us, a dead battery in our cell phone or digital camera is an annoyance. For surgical tools salesman Jason Paul, it can cost him big money.

Paul counts on his smartphone — a cell phone that can perform computing chores — to check his stocks and send e-mail. He logs more than 3,000 minutes a month in calls to his clients. He also uses his phone to show doctors video clips of how his products perform in the operating room.

“When I’m using it like this, which is most days, I maybe get two or three hours out of the batteries,” says Paul, who works for Fremont, Calif.-based Rita Medical Systems Inc. “If it goes out and some doctor is trying to get a hold of me and can’t, then they get angry. You’re only one bad case away from losing a customer.”

Paul, 29, is among a growing number of consumers becoming ever more dependent on their energy-hungry gadgets. But smartphones, laptops, digital music players and portable videogame consoles tend to gobble up more power with every additional feature.

Battery makers are racing to keep up, finding new ways to pack more power into smaller and smaller spaces.

The technical challenges are daunting. Most people have little understanding of the complex and volatile chemistry that occurs in their batteries each time they videotape the kids at soccer practice or listen to their iPod, says Brian Barnett, managing director of research and development firm Tiax Llc.

“Can you imagine a chemical plant that has to operate in a closed condition and send energy forward and backward 500 times?” Barnett said. “And you can’t send anybody in to do maintenance. People who operate chemical plants laugh, but that’s what we do with a rechargeable cell.”

Much of the research is centered on improving the lithium ion battery, which has revolutionized the electronics industry since it was widely adopted in the mid-1990s. Found in most mobile electronics gear, lithium ion batteries are energy dense, smaller and lighter than nickel-based batteries, but are often more expensive.

They work by mixing lithium cobaltate at the positive terminal and graphite at the negative. The two materials produce a lot of energy when they react with each other.

Some of the scientists involved believe lithium ion has maxed out as a power source. And some companies are already coming up with new materials to replace cobaltate and graphite.

Sony Corp. and Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., which makes Panasonic brand products, each announced earlier this year that they had developed longer-lasting lithium ion batteries by tweaking the chemical equation.

Both companies say their batteries can boost the life of a battery by up to 30 percent, claims that some analysts question.

Sony says it replaced graphite with a mixture of tin, cobalt, and carbon for its “hybrid” battery, which is being rolled out exclusively in the company’s new DVD Handycam camcorders.

Mike Kahn, a Sony senior product manager, said the new materials stuff more ions into a cell, extending the life of the battery by 20 percent in normal conditions. The hybrid outperforms standard batteries in cold weather by 30 percent, and recharges faster, he says.

Kahn declined to say when Sony’s innovation would be brought to cell phones, laptops or other products.

Panasonic says it’s working together with Intel Corp. to develop an “all-day battery,” increasing the capacity by swapping cobaltate for another material the company won’t disclose.

The new material allows the batteries to be discharged down to a lower voltage, enabling users to get more runtime from their devices. Designed to power laptops, cell phones and other mobile electronics, Panasonic’s first generation battery is scheduled to hit store shelves in April, says Kurt Kelty, director of the Panasonic Energy Solutions Lab.

Intel’s contribution is developing a mobile platform technology enabling laptops to take advantage of Panasonic’s battery.

“It’s not a trivial matter to get handheld devices to operate down to 2.5 volts,” said Kelty, adding that most laptops are designed to shut down when a battery gets down to 3 volts. “Intel is going to modify their platform so their chips can run off the lower voltage.”

Independent studies of the Sony and Panasonic performance claims are hard to come by, and some scientists suspect any improvement has more to do with better power management in the design of mobile products.

Donald Sadoway, a materials scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the only way to really test the value of Sony’s new battery is to see it perform in a wide range of products.

“For all we know they could have developed more efficient displays, improved hard drives in their cameras,” he said.

Finding ways of squeezing more performance from available power is a huge area of exploration for electronics makers.

For example, they tinker with a device’s clockwork — the term used to describe how fast a machine performs a specific function — to speed up energy-eating chores. They look for ways to prevent extreme temperatures from siphoning off energy.

Sometimes an executive in charge of power management employs a less scientific approach: begging designers to make room for a bigger battery in the device, said Dave Heacock, vice president of the Texas Instruments’ portable power division.

“Everyone is involved in the same race to lower power consumption of their products while improving them,” Heacock said.

Meantime, people can always buy heavy portable batteries for backup power, extra rechargeable batteries and extra chargers. And lug them around.

Paul, the salesman, is among consumers who wonder what good mobile devices if they need to be recharged so often.

“When you’re trying to streamline our lives, the idea of keeping a backup battery, car charger and a standard charger is not the ideal solution.”