The race is on to supply power to the people

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It has happened to us all: halfway through a vital phone call or e-mail, the warning message or dreaded beep occurs advising us that we are living on borrowed time and that power is about to fail.

For while the electronics industry keeps pushing on with new features that turn notebooks into desktops and cellphones into computers, battery life is a significant impediment to a fully mobile lifestyle. And in a recent survey by TNS Technology more than two-thirds of respondents said the battery life of their phone or PDA was an issue.

There has been some increase in battery life. For instance, the average standby time of a mobile phone has increased from 190 hours at the end of 2003 to more than 260 hours by the end of 2004, according to Strategy Analytics.

But battery technologies are not on the same growth curve as the other technologies used in portable electronics. They are not even part of the same discipline, being confined by the laws of chemistry.

“Battery technology has really fallen behind demand,” Stuart Robinson, director, Handset Component Technologies at Strategy Analytics told attendees at a recent Portable Power conference in San Francisco.

“The manufacturers of handsets have had to cut back on what they include in cell phones to what the battery can provide.”

He added that the advent of more advanced mobile data technologies such as 3G or WiFi has actually made mobile phones less energy-efficient.

There has been some increase in discharge time for a laptop battery – three years ago your laptop would work only for two hours without being connected to the main power supply. The average battery life (or “runtime” as it is known in the industry) is currently three hours.

However according to Sara Bradford, research manager, Power Systems Group at Frost & Sullivan, it is likely to stay at this point for the near future.

“This is not to say no improvements or advancements will be introduced,” she says. “But the rate at which the device manufacturers are adding power-hungry applications and improving existing applications on the notebook itself outweighs the rate at which battery improvements surface.”

Joe Carcone, senior vice president at Sanyo Energy USA, stands up for his industry. Over the past 15 years the industry has “made incredible leaps”, he says from the nickel-cadmium (NiCAD) batteries that held sway for decades, to the introduction of nickel metal hydride (NIMH) in the mid-nineties and the arrival of Lithium-based batteries a few years later. The amount of energy that can be produced in a given space has quadrupled with these changes.

The majority of cell phones, laptops and other portable electronics now use lithium ion for their rechargeable batteries. This allows for smaller batteries that are also less of a threat to the environment and do not suffer from the “memory effect” in which batteries stop providing the full charge of which they are capable.

There are several companies working on enhancements to lithium-based technologies. Sion Power is developing a battery based on lithium and sulphur which offers better performance.

Companies such as Maxwell Technologies are working on what are called “ultra capacitor” solutions that minimise the impact of the most demanding “peak-power” events on a notebook battery. Though, according to Robinson at Strategy Analytics, they will not help with high-power applications on mobile phones.

There are also efforts by semiconductor companies and equipment manufacturers to make devices more efficient, as witnessed by announcements from Intel and Texas Instruments. And there is the Splashpower Pad from Splashpower of the UK, which uses inductive coupling to charge multiple devices at one time so no cords are needed. But the received wisdom is that the next level of portable power is represented by two words: fuel cells. These are expected to be able to run up to 20 hours without a refill.

Over the past year, Sanyo and Toshiba have announced prototype fuel cell systems for notebooks and mp3 players respectively. But fuel cell technology is not a near-term prospect, even if experts such as Ms Bradford at Frost & Sullivan think it will eventually be a disruptive technology.

Companies are still trying to find the optimum fuel for the solution – for instance, the Siemens-backed start-up, H2Volt is working on what it claims is the world’s first dry-fuel fuel cell that uses a solid chemical rather than a gas or a liquid fuel. It won’t have a product available for perhaps 18 months.

Aside from the logistical issues surrounding the sale and transport of fuel cartridges, market education will be required so consumers are not put off by having to buy new fuel cartridges. “There is a cost for charging your battery [through the mains], but we think of it as free,” says Ms Bradford.

This is why Medis Technologies decided to create a disposable fuel cell, the Power Pack, as opposed to the refillable product they had envisioned.

According to Michelle Rush, vice president of marketing, the company was advised that consumers would find the idea disconcerting. “They have never had weeks and weeks of freedom from the wall,” she says.

The Power Pack comes with connectors for a wide range of phones and other portable electronics, but not laptops. It can be used to power and recharge devices for four to six weeks before the fuel runs out and the pack is thrown away. It will be commercially available in the first quarter of 2006.

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