This is why your smartphone battery has the life span of a fruit fly


(Brent Lewin/Bloomberg)

When news leaked out this week that Apple was experimenting with a new way of charging its anticipated iWatch – possibly using kinetic movement, magnetic induction or solar power — it should have been an “a-ha” moment for innovators everywhere. We’ve been so accustomed to thinking in terms of “battery life” and plugging cords into electrical wall sockets that we never ask the obvious question: Why isn’t there more innovation when it comes to powering our digital devices?

At a time when the pace of innovation in the technology world seems to be increasing at an exponential rate, it seems that there should be a similar pace of exponential innovation for batteries. In short, there should be a Moore’s Law for batteries, in which the power capacity of batteries doubles every 18 months or so.

By now, batteries should have been shrunk down to such an infinitesimally small size that they shouldn’t even be a consideration in the way we buy digital devices. We should have a surplus of power for our digital devices. Yet, the “battery life” spec continues to be one that appears in just about any head-to-head comparison of digital devices. And, say scientists, the unique chemistry and physics of the battery means that we probably won’t be seeing any Moore’s Law-type breakthroughs any time soon. You simply can’t shrink things much smaller than they already are.

As a result, most of the incremental innovations intended to extend battery life – like the Mophie JuicePack or the Duracell Powermat – will continue to seem more like short-term patches rather than long-term solutions. They will keep your batteries going for just a little longer, but never really get at the heart of the problem: society’s reliance on the humble lithium-ion battery to power technological progress.

There are some notable exceptions, of course, like the recent announcement that it might be possible to cram 1,000 tiny windmills into your phone one day. Nanotechnology seems to hold the promise for other similar types of innovations, because, let’s face it, our devices are only getting smaller, so our power sources must get smaller as well. As Apple has shown us with out-of-the-box thinking about concepts such as solar power and kinetic movement (waving your arms to power your device, for example), it’s not out of the question to rule out renewable energy as a way of powering our devices. Renewable energy — especially solar energy — is one area where further innovation can have enormous implications.

As we’ve seen with the electric car, there’s enormous potential to think out-of-the-box about battery innovation. However, if it’s stressful to have our mobile phones constantly dying on us at inopportune moments, it has to be significantly more stressful to know that your car is about to run out of charge. That should provide further impetus to find technological solutions to the battery life problem.

At the end of the day, though, practicality is the rule rather than the exception. A solar-powered watch sounds extraordinary, until you start thinking about ways that you’d actually power that watch. Would you walk around all day with solar panels attached to your belt? Cramming 1,000 tiny windmills into a smart phone sounds fantastic, but would a smartphone powered by wind energy be significantly more expensive than a smartphone powered by traditional batteries?

Today’s batteries, by contrast, are easy to understand, easy to buy, and easy to charge. Best of all, unless you’re traveling to an unfamiliar destination, it’s also relatively easy to find a wall socket somewhere that you can use to plug in your device and recharge your battery.

While electricity is seemingly ubiquitous, hunting around for a wall socket can be annoying – and also panic-inducing if your battery indicator dips into the red zone. No wonder some stores now boast charging stations as an extra perk to draw customers. No wonder airports now have branded charging stations for weary travelers trying to keep their mobile phones afloat for just… one … last … call. It all leads to a mad scramble to bring along the right mix of cables, plugs and adapters so that our devices never run out of power.

So this one goes out to all the innovators in Silicon Valley who might assume that battery innovation is just too hard. Give us our new 4G phones. Give us the latest laptops and tablets with all the latest technological functionality. But also think long and hard about a new way to power all of these wonderful new digital devices that will leave us free and clear of the tyranny of the battery.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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