In the last couple of decades we have seen momentous advances in both software and hardware of gadgets. Companies like Apple, Samsung, HTC and Nokia have been on their toes to churn out mouth-watering features in their OS and mind-blowing improvements in processor speed and memory. But for some imminent reasons the battery of gadgets hasn’t been fortunate enough to witness advances of such scale. Why?
A battery is perhaps the most important, and also the most expensive, component of phones and tablets. Today’s batteries work on chemical reaction between anode and cathode, and the energy of moving electrons thus generated is utilized for powering the device. The focus to improve the battery performance has been to make its cathode and anode lighter so that more energy/power can be squeezed into the same weight and area. Thus, we have moved from lead-acid batteries to nickel metal hydride and then to the current lithium ion batteries (lead having atomic weight 82 to lithium having atomic weight 3). But alas! Here is the dead end. We can’t go further down the periodic table, meaning the scope of further improvement in chemical storage is extremely small.
Apart from such fundamental challenges, there are other limitations as well:
- Infrastructure: Commercial battery production requires huge capital investment to set up manufacturingplants, long gestation periods to come up with a feasible working model and high patience levels on the part of entrepreneurs to persist in a competitive market. Numerous lab experiments done around the world that seek to improve battery efficiency just cannot be scaled to production due to above reasons. As Jason M. Lemkin, co-founder of a battery start-up called NanoGram Devices, comments, “…It’s very hard to achieve a venture-ROI here. In fact not sure it’s ever been fully achieved. Certainly, there have been no Instagrams.”
- Cost: The cost factor doesn’t worry only the manufacturers; even the customer has been sceptical about the high prices of new batteries. Barring the lead-acid, all newly developed batteries are expensive. This, thus, leaves no room for a breakthrough to capture the market as the customer may not be willing to pay anything extra.
- Safety: Yeah! The most worrisome of all the factors. Batteries are live bombs, literally. And more the energy density, fiercer will be the fire. Every major battery company from Sony to Duracell has borne the brunt of horrible fire disasters, often in a horrific high-temperature lithium fire. This hasn’t gone down very well with budding start-ups as well as the researchers.
So what is the road ahead then? Well, there is no dearth of potential technologies that promise to bail the battery out of the current glitch. Nanophosphate EXT developed by A123 is one example. But what is required is an optimistic investment from companies in them. Also, there seems to be a need to come out of the arena of chemical storage and instead search for better alternatives. Solar power, energy from body motion, etc. are few promising areas where the battery can seek a new life for itself. I’m waiting for that day badly!