Mobility

Batteries: The Achilles Heel of mobile devices

Mobile batteries and their thirst for power are the weak link in the realm of portable devices. Learn about the state of batteries and how they're evolving.

I attended an outdoor series of concerts here in Massachusetts recently and the doors opened at noon. As you can imagine, I took plenty of pictures with my Samsung Galaxy S7 and also used it to communicate with friends and engage with social media. The battery quickly drained as a result of my activities, and just a few hours later, I had to text my friends one final "meet me at 'X' afterward—my phone is almost dead!"

It was frustrating, and I thought to myself, "Surely we have GOT to be nearing the end of this struggle to keep our devices powered up!"

It's incredible how smartphone innovations keep on cranking; just a few examples include voice commands, location awareness, apps that can get you a ride home within minutes, and the ability to talk with friends and loved ones anywhere in the world. However, the power required to support these nifty concepts hasn't expanded in parallel fashion.

Why have smartphone manufacturers lagged in this area?

Well, there are few factors involved. First, sleek form factors are all the rage now, but a big clunky battery gets in the way of that. A smartphone three inches thick could house a very powerful battery, but few users desire carrying such a brick. (I would!)

SEE: Mobile device computing policy (Tech Pro Research)

Second, the cool features that smartphones can perform depend on more power-hungry components, such as bigger screens with better colors, faster CPUs, more memory, and various network communications. Batteries just can't keep up with the demand.

Third, there have been limitations in battery technology itself. As Spandas Lui of Lifehacker put it, "there hasn't really been a revolutionary commercial breakthrough in battery technology in the last 30 years. Lithium batteries, which are used in smartphones, are lightweight and portable, but it has a limited capacity. Over the years, power consumption on smartphone has only increased while capacity has remained stagnant.

Smartphone makers ... can't really make substantial changes to the battery itself. It also doesn't solve the problem that batteries wear out pretty quickly."

Smartphone manufacturers are trying to help solve the problem by releasing products with improved battery capacity. Google claims "one can get seven hours of use after just a 15-minute charging session" of its Pixel 2 phone. TechRepublic also recently covered a new smartphone by Energizer that can last five days on a single charge. The iPhone 8 reportedly offers more than 24 hours of battery life even after intense usage, and the Samsung Galaxy 8 Note claims the same using "Samsung's power-saving software tricks."

Those tricks involve ways to extend battery life on your phone, of course. My preferred list of choices includes removing unnecessary apps, stopping all unwanted background apps or services, using airplane or ultra-power saving mode, dimming the screen, and reducing your data consumption in general.

However, it's still a drop in the bucket compared to various technological advances that science fiction films have instilled in the minds of power-hungry consumers.

It's also possible to carry portable chargers. I have a pocket-size one as well as a solar charger about the size of an iPhone, but due to my excessive smartphone usage at the concert, using these would have been akin to bailing the Titanic with a leaky bucket.

The easily portable disposable cardboard smartphone battery charger created by a designer named Tsung Chih-Hsien also looks promising.

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Image: FastcoDesign.com


As the image indicates, this concept involves battery charger cells that can provide a two-, four-, or six-hour boost for your phone. Although the concept debuted four years ago, I couldn't find an online site actually selling them. Hopefully, they'll be available at corner stores soon.

SEE: IT pro's guide to the evolution and impact of 5G technology (free TechRepublic PDF)

In 2016, I covered the topic of how to prevent battery drain on roaming devices and discussed future battery concepts, such as nanowire batteries that never wear out, solid-state batteries that offer longer lifespans, lithium-ion and foam batteries that charge quickly, science-fiction-level batteries powered by water or skin, and chargers that operate on dew, solar, sound, sand, and more.

These ideas are finally coming to fruition. To follow up on these futuristic notions, I researched and found a Pocket-Lint article from earlier this year discussing some amazing and exciting mobile device battery concepts:

  • Micro-supercapacitor batteries that can "charge in seconds, last months and power over the air," as well as Ryden dual carbon batteries that charge 20 times as quickly as conventional lithium ion batteries
  • Foam batteries that are not flammable, last longer, charge more rapidly, and are less expensive and smaller
  • Foldable waterproof batteries with textures similar to paper
  • Ultrasound batteries that can be charged over the air as well as sound-powered batteries that can be powered by the human voice
  • Biological semiconductor nonflammable batteries that can be charged in 60 seconds
  • Solar-charging mobile phone batteries
  • Sand-based batteries that can provide three times the capacity of current batteries and salt-based batteries seven times as powerful
  • Hydrogen fuel cell phone chargers that can recharge a device up to five times
  • Liquid-flow-based batteries that can power and cool devices
  • Clothing-based batteries that convert "movement into stored energy" and sweat-based biofuel cells that, if they become advanced enough someday, could "power wearable devices like smartwatches and fitness trackers"

Last but not least, there is even a urine-powered battery on the list. Graphic details were not included, fortunately.

All of these concepts are worth keeping an eye on to see which ones will gain a foothold in the industry. If you are a smartphone manufacturer or you manage a fleet of mobile devices for your organization these ideas will be particularly relevant to your operation.

Mark my words, the individual or company that finally solves the battery burden will stand alongside Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. One hopes all of the concepts I discussed (and more) will find their way to market in short order.


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Your take

Are you fed up with feeble mobile device battery life? Have you found any solutions that offer some relief? Share your thoughts with fellow TechRepublic members.

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Image: iStock/AntonioGuillem

About Scott Matteson

Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.

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