Mobility

Better batteries ahead mean big changes for mobility

Tired of having your battery drain too fast on your phone? Some amazing new developments are taking place in the realm of batteries. Find out what's coming next.

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The iPhone 6 battery.
Bill Detwiler/TechRepublic
I went on a camping trip last month in the next town over from mine, a rural community where 3G/4G mobile access is as a sparse as the thinly-populated countryside itself. As is usually the case in these situations, my Samsung Galaxy struggled gamely to get a signal, causing it to chew through battery life like a New Year's Eve partygoer popping Advil on January 1. My robust ZeroLemon extended battery drained within a day even after I switched it to airplane mode, and attempting to charge it with my Energizer Instant Charger (which runs on AA batteries) merely resulted in a flurry of annoying "connect your charger" prompts; no actual charging took place. I wound up charging the phone in my vehicle but even after a couple of hours I only got about 22% more life out of the battery, which was exhausted by 10 p.m. Lights out.

Nowadays poor battery life and the travails we engage in to try to keep them on life support are, in a word, absurd. We have devices in our pockets that are more powerful than anything NASA could boast of 40 years ago, and still we are held back by battery limitations. It's like having to hand-crank a Ferrari to get it to start - or worse, having to kill the engine then crank it up at every stoplight.

Is the day coming when we won't have to engage in this time-consuming dance? Well, yes, it is.

According to Science Daily, "Scientists [at Nangyang Technological University in Singapore] have developed a new battery that can be recharged up to 70 per cent in only 2 minutes. The battery will also have a longer lifespan of over 20 years." Furthermore, it can be charged up to 20 times more than current models.

While the context of the article relates to electric vehicle batteries, this is a new kind of lithium ion battery which will also apply to smartphones and many other objects requiring portable power.

How is this new battery different?

Lithium ion batteries were developed well over thirty years ago, and though they've advanced since their original versions the deficiencies are still painful. These new batteries contain titanium dioxide which is affordable, plentiful and safe. It's currently in use within paint and solar panels, for instance. The titanium dioxide particles are turned into a gel which makes up nanotubes much smaller than a typical hair. The size and structure of the nanotubes and the properties of the gel - which is tough and resistant to deterioration - work more efficiently than current batteries to facilitate rapid battery charging.

Reports thus far don't indicate that the new battery provides more power capacity or lasts longer after a full charge than contemporary batteries, but the breakthrough here is the quick recharge time and the long lifespan of the battery, allowing it to potentially be used for decades (and I hope this spurs cell phone manufacturers to standardize on one kind of battery which can be transplanted across various models both current and future).

Using existing power sources or portable rechargers a smartphone could be fully powered up in 3 minutes, according to the current projection of charging capability - although it's not clear whether existing charger cables could possibly pass such a high amount of wattage within that time span. Cable upgrades may go hand-in-hand with this kind of battery. However, this is minor in the overall scheme of things. Since the battery will last much longer there will be fewer discards and less worry about the main battery dying on a road trip - which is why I carry two spares. Even desperate situations like recharging smartphones in an airport terminal while waiting to board a flight will be made easier.

This isn't the only "new and improved battery" in the game, however - nor do they all seem to find the light of day. A year and a half ago a similar advance in lithium ion technology was announced (and about which the current status is unclear) which claimed to be "2,000 times more powerful, recharges 1,000 times faster." And lithium ion may not necessarily be the only way to go; dual carbon batteries are also reportedly under development (as of last May) which claim to "charge 20x faster than lithium ion." However, this battery developed at Nangyang Technological University may have an advantage going for it: it matches current manufacturing processes meaning these don't need to be expanded or revised, and that will help further its development.

When will we actually start seeing these batteries in production?

Currently the inventors are planning a proof of concept for a prototype of the new battery, and it is expected to be available within two years. Hopefully it will be released as planned (or some other savior will appear - there is simply too much demand for this concept to remain in limbo) and our car chargers, extra batteries and archaic power-up strategies will allow us to scrape by until 2016!

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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