Why batteries suck, and the new tech that may supercharge them

why batteries suck and how tech may fix them
Martin Abegglen/Flickr
Record demand for external chargers is one manifestation of the desire for gadgets that can last for days untethered, and what a strong desire it is: in 2012, a J.D. Power and Associates survey found that battery life, more than any other feature, contributed to dissatisfaction among smartphone buyers. That’s unlikely to have changed today, when the average smartphone can only browse the Web for around 8 hours before dying … on Wi-Fi.

At first, it seems like the blame lies with smartphone manufacturers. You might assume the batteries that power the flagships from Samsung, LG, Motorola, etc are chosen by the respective engineers. The truth, though, is more nuanced: the lithium-ion batteries in almost all devices today haven’t radically changed since they came out 23 years ago. This lengthy stagnation has forced companies to compromise on smartphone size, battery life, or both. Either a device like a phone can be thin, or it can get decent battery life.

So how did we get to this point, exactly, and where are we going? Improved battery designs lie on the horizon, but will they ever hit the market? Do any new battery technologies have a real chance at ending our reliance on lithium ion, and will other solutions help make today’s batteries bearable in the meantime? We endeavored to find out.

How batteries work

The first rechargeable lithium-ion batteries were explosive. Literally. Sony and chemical company Asashi Kasei learned this the hard way when, in 1991, the companies’ first commercial metal-based lithium battery burned through a cellular phone and inflicted burns on a man’s face.

The lithium-ion batteries in almost all devices today haven’t radically changeed since they came out 23 years ago.

That didn’t stop lithium-ion cells from becoming the dominant source of power in portable devices, though. The reason? They’re much more energy dense than the alternatives, for one, but also relatively maintenance-free. Unlike other batteries, they don’t require discharge, don’t have memory, don’t experience cell-killing sulfation build-up, and contain fewer toxic metals than most other batteries. Lithium-ion batteries are, simply put, one of the most versatile mass-produced batteries around.

But they’re limited in other ways, chiefly energy density. The reason, Vice President of marketing at Leyden Energy Noam Kedem told CNET in an interview, is because “[v]olumetric energy density falls of as [lithium ion cells] gets thinner because the packaging takes up a higher percentage of energy volume.” What does that mean for the average consumer? If you want great battery life, you’ll have to compromise on size.

Take this example: the Nokia Lumia 1520 can last up to 107 hours on a charge, but measures 6.4 inches across – the size of a phablet. The 6.34-inch Huawei Ascend Mate2 4G lasts about the same. The only smaller phone that holds its own in the realm of giants is the Xperia Z3 Compact, which manages to eek out 101 hours on a good day. But accomplishing that feat required Sony designers to opt for a 720p display, an outlying spec for a smartphone priced at $630.

Sony Xperia Z3 Compact
Sony Xperia Z3 Compact

The truly disappointing part is that even those big batteries won’t last very long. Apple rates the iPhone’s battery at 80 percent of capacity for 50 charges, which, assuming you charge your phone once a night, is about a year and a half.

Beyond those constraints, there’s the issue of safety. The lithium-ion batteries of today may not be as dangerous as the metal-based designs of yesteryear, but blunt force can still cause them to short circuit, disintegrate, or release harmful gas. Failures are rare, but the results can be dramatic — a pierced battery pack two years ago caused a Tesla Model S to burst into flames, and a viral video illustrates just what can happen when you hit a Samsung Galaxy S5 battery with a hammer.

Given the myriad issues, it’s no surprise there’s a strong desire among both consumers and device makers for smaller, denser, and safer alternatives. The body of inquiry on that front is promising, but the trick, it turns out, is not necessarily the research, but adapting designs for mass production. Reducing the costs associated with fabrication and achieving efficiency are often the toughest part of bringing new batteries to market.

The batteries of the future are coming, slowly

There are better batteries coming, and some come from ideas in the past. Take research from the University of Stanford, for example. The first lithium battery designs contained lithium anodes, anodes quickly found to be inefficient and unsafe, but scientists at Stanford recently managed to solve those problems by isolating lithium from the electrolyte with a special, protective layer of carbon nanostructures. The result is a doubling, maybe tripling of battery life.

Batteries made from sand have as much as 3X the capacity and lifespan of traditional batteries.

A pure lithium battery is the putative successor to today’s batteries — engineering lead on the Stanford project Yi Cui says the material has the “greatest” potential of all the materials that can be used as anodes. But production’s the rub: the Stanford team’s design has yet to reach the requisite industry threshold for efficiency (99.9 percent) for commercialization, and even when it does, the complexity of fabrication could result in a high price tag — somewhere in the range of $25,000 for vehicle-sized battery, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu told Phys.org.

That’s why scientists at the University of California Riverside turned to sand. They collected granules with a high percentage of quartz, ground them with salt and magnesium, and finally heated them to remove oxygen and extract pure silicon. The final material has as much as three times the capacity and lifespan of traditional batteries.

But batteries from sand aren’t feasible for the handsets in our pockets yet, either. The researchers have yet to discover a method of producing the silicon sand at scale; the largest battery they’ve produced to date is the size of a small coin.

Kang Shin and doctoral student Xinyu Zhang
Kang Shin and Xinyu Zhang

The barrier to market for new designs is so severe that device companies like Apple, Google, and Dyson have begun working directly with battery firms to accelerate development. But in the absence of any significant breakthroughs, hardware and software makers have developed workarounds of their own to address our intense desire for longer-lasting smartphones, tablets, electric cars, and laptops.

One of the causes of rapid battery drain is Wi-Fi — modern handsets monitor nearby wireless traffic constantly, expending a lot of energy examining packets and looking for clear channels in environments full of interfering signals. University of Michigan computer science and engineering professor Kang Shin and doctoral student Xinyu Zhang came up with a solution, which they call Energy-Minimizing Idle Listening (E-MiLi).

E-MiLi saves power by slowing down the internal wireless chip while Wi-Fi isn’t in use, which Shin and Zhang say results in an average energy saving of about 44 percent. Moreover, E-MiLi is compatible with 92 percent of mobile devices. But there’s a catch, as always: it relies on wireless routers with special firmware to work.

Blueshift Helium Bamboo Supercapacitor Powered Speaker

Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

Another idea that researchers are mulling around with is rapid charging. That’s an umbrella term that encompasses everything from optimized software to beefed-up capacitors, but the concept is simple: power adapters with very, very short charging cycles. In mid-2013, an 18 year-old student showcased a supercapacitor at Intel’s Science and Engineering Fair capable of charging a smartphone battery in 30 seconds. The Blueshift Bamboo speaker, which operates on a similar principle, can charge in minutes and last for six hours.

Some supplementary chargers are far crazier. A luxury smartphone made by Tag Heuer has photovoltaic layers that recharge its battery from sunlight. Researchers at UC San Diego have created a temporary “battery tattoo” that’s charged by sweat. And scientists at Nokia and at the Queen Mary University of London are currently working on “nanogenerators” designed to generate electricity from sounds like human voices, traffic, and music.

Some battery improvements are already happening

As new models of battery continue their inexorable but lethargic trudge toward commercialization, electronics and software companies find themselves in much the same position they’ve been for the past 23 years: they have to work around limitations of an outdated technology. Some have been more successful than others at treating the symptoms — LG implemented a layered lithium ion design in the G2, for instance, that it claimed boosted capacity by 16 percent — but as long as the causes of low capacity and poor longevity go unaddressed, not much will change.

The unfortunate reality is that, with the exception of external chargers and third-party batteries, there really isn’t a good alternative to lithium-ion batteries yet; most research remains in the prototype stage, the interim and aftermarket solutions aren’t all that practical — your next smartphone isn’t really that likely to sport a solar panel, or energy-saving Wi-Fi software, or nanogenerators.

There’s no silver bullet to the battery industry’s lithium-ion woes right now, but we have seen some breakthroughs from institutions like Nangyang Technological University, where researchers have developed a fast-charging titanium dioxide anode. Development of alternatives is also accelerating. In April, scientists at NASA licensed technology that can convert heat from car exhausts into usable electricity, and researchers at Japanese company Fuji Pigment have made steps toward the commercialization of aluminum-air technology, batteries with a theoretical capacity 40 times greater than lithium-ion.

Give it a few more years

Sure, lithium-ion batteries have their benefits: they’re cheap, easy to manufacture, and comparatively stable. But they’re also huge and don’t last long. It’s no surprise there’s a hunger for alternatives, and while none are really here yet, there’s reason to be hopeful. More researchers are tackling the “lithium-ion problem” than ever before. Some alternative battery designs are nearing commercialization, too. And a few of the half measures aren’t half bad in the meantime — Qualcomm’s QuickCharge, a so-called fast charging technology built into some smartphones, dramatically expedites charging.

It’s true that lithium-ion’s death knell hasn’t quite arrived, but it’s closer than it’s ever been. It’s not unreasonable to project that in five or fewer years, smartphones that last less than a few days on a single charge will seem positively (no pun intended) prehistoric.

Product Review

The new iPad Mini isn’t a beauty, but it performs like a beast

Apple’s new iPad Mini has beastly performance, fluid iOS 12 software, and good battery life. It also looks like it came straight out of 2015, because the design hasn’t been changed. Here's our review of Apple’s 7.9-inch tablet.
Product Review

Audio-Technica's M50xBT headphones bring signature studio sound to the streets

Audio pros may balk at cutting the cord on studio headphones, but it’s hard to argue with these results. Audio-Technica’s wireless ATH-M50xBT offer massive battery life and killer sound you can take anywhere.

The go kart-like Mini Cooper will soon add zero emissions to its resume

Mini is in the final stages of developing an electric version of the Cooper. The 2020 Cooper SE will receive powertrain components from the BMW i3, including a 181-horsepower electric motor and battery technology.

Need a quick battery boost? Try one of our favorite portable chargers

Battery life still tops the polls when it comes to smartphone concerns. If it’s bugging you, then maybe it’s time to snag yourself a portable charger. Here are our picks for the best portable chargers.

HMD Global admits Nokia 7 Plus handsets sent user data to China

Nokia could be in some hot water. According to recent reports, Nokia 7 models may be secretly sending data to China without the user knowing about it. Nokia says that the issue was a software bug and that it has been fixed.

Here are the best iPad Pro keyboard cases to pick up with your new tablet

The iPad Pro range can double as laptops, but they do need proper keyboards to fill in effectively. Thankfully, there are loads to choose from and we rounded up the best iPad Pro keyboard cases right here.

Alpina makes its AlpinerX smartwatch even more attractive with new colors

Alpina has introduced four new colors to its AlpinerX smartwatch range, breaking the usually sporty watch out into a more everyday casual design, and given the tech a slight makeover too.

24 must-have apps for rooted Android phones and tablets

Rooting your Android device opens up a world of possibilities, along with a few apps. Here are 24 of our favorites, so you can make the most of your rooted device and unleash the true power of Android.

Wring the most out of iOS with the best commands for Siri

You may not know all the things you can say to Siri -- after all, Apple never released an official list of commands for its virtual assistant. Thankfully, we've compiled a list of the best Siri commands to help you out.

Breeze through security with these checkpoint-friendly laptop bags

Getting through airport security is a drag, but your laptop bag shouldn’t be. Thankfully, these checkpoint-friendly laptop bags will get you and your gear to your destination with ease.

Flex your thumbs (and your brain) with these fun texting games

Gaming consoles keep getting more advanced, but you can still have fun with the good old Latin alphabet. Here are our picks for the best texting games, so you can make the most fun out of that limited data plan or basic cell phone.

New gold finish makes Frederique Constant’s hybrid smartwatch flashier than ever

Frederique Constant has found considerable success with its luxury hybrid smartwatch, the Hybrid Manufacture, and has launched several new color schemes to help bring it even more attention.

Tag Heuer’s Golf Edition smartwatch is a lot more than just a flash of new color

Tag Heuer's Golf Edition Connected Modular 45 smartwatch has a lot more going for it than just a flashy new color scheme. From the titanium body and black PVD coating to the new Golf app, this is a true special edition.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Robotic companions and computer-aided karaoke

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it's fun to gawk!