Editor’s Note: Our mobile devices have become our constant companions, and the more we rely on them to stay informed and connected, the more important it is that our devices stay energized. In this series, we’ll share the best current tips and tricks for getting the most life out of your device's battery, and take a peek into the near future and the innovations that could make keeping charged a lot easier.
Follow along on Twitter using the hashtag #BatteryLife and share your own insights, tips and how you keep your devices charged up and ready for anything.
While smartphones and wearables are becoming more advanced by the minute, a portable device can only be as powerful as the battery that fuels it. And we all know how anxiety-provoking it can be to see our phone flash that 20-percent charge warning — usually much sooner than we expect.
While small advancements in battery tech have been made since Sony first commercialized the rechargeable lithium-ion standard in 1991, they’ve been few and far between, and have been unable to keep up with the mile-a-minute improvements being made to the devices they’re designed to power. And without a comparable energy source, even the most innovative portable electronics (including the Apple Watch) meet with criticism.
“For the last 20 to 30 years, computer speed has doubled every 18 months, and our smart phones today harness much more computer power than the space capsules that flew to the moon in the previous century,” says Cees Links, CEO and founder of GreenPeak Technologies. “Unfortunately, battery technology has only improved about five percent per year, which means that we have only seen marginal improvements in the amount of power that can be stored in a certain size battery.”
But the future is starting to look brighter for battery-boosting tech. A number of new innovations seem poised to pave the way for longer lifespans, faster charges and improved capacity. The question is, how soon will we see them in our smartphones?
A Two-Week Charge
“The industry has been trying to pack more power into batteries by using new materials or finding sophisticated ways of packaging,” Links says. To this end, Fuji Pigment recently unveiled a new type of aluminum-air battery capable of keeping its charge for an impressive 14 days. According to the manufacturers, it has 40 times the theoretical capacity of lithium-ion and can be charged by being refilled with water — either salt or tap will do. They say that the materials used to construct the battery are safe, abundant and relatively inexpensive to produce.
The catch? Fuji Pigment is preparing to commercialize this technology for electric cars first, with a goal to have prototypes on the road by next year. If the new “al-air” battery proves successful, mobile phones would be next inline to adopt the technology.
Zero to Capacity in 60 Seconds
In a rush to leave your house but stuck waiting for your phone to charge? Israeli start-up StoreDot has developed an antidote — a high-speed, next-generation mobile phone battery capable of going from dead to full-charge in one minute.
Created with chemically-synthesized organic molecules, the battery’s lightning-speed charge time is also a big benefit because it increases the battery’s lifespan. “No one wants to have to change batteries,” Links explains. “So the creation of devices that can last a decade operating on a single battery is so critical to the tech industry.” Lithium-ion batteries can only withstand about 500 charge cycles, and typically die within two to three years of purchase. StoreDot’s model, on the other hand, would be able to endure thousands of charges and last for years before wearing down.
But there’s a caveat to this innovation, as well. While the battery’s overall lifespan is increased, the length of time that it can hold a charge is not. (In fact, the prototype actually loses power faster than conventional lithium-ion batteries.) However StoreDot CEO Doron Myersdorf argues that the super-fast charging time more than compensates for this fact. “The whole anxiety of your phone [going] dead goes away,” he told The Guardian. “Because if [recharging] happens in one minute, there is not an issue.” StoreDot hopes to make the battery available to consumers by 2017.
Here Comes the Sun
In addition to being environmentally friendly, solar-power technology has the potential to become a major battery booster in the next few years. The Japanese mobile company Kyocera, in a partnership with French firm SunPartner Technologies, has created a smartphone prototype with an ultra-thin, solar crystal panel built into the touchscreen. This panel soaks up sunlight (and artificial light when indoors), converts it to energy, and feeds that power to the phone’s battery.
While not intended to serve as the sole method for charging, the solar power capability provides the device with valuable talk and standby time. “When you get exposed to light, whether the product is on or off, you’re collecting energy,” Matthieu de Broca, marketing director for SunPartner, told Smithsonian.com. “With ten minutes [of sunlight], you can get 100 minutes standby gain, which could also be about two minutes of additional talk time.” Kyocera and SunPartner hope to bring the prototype to market by 2017.
Imagine being able to get rid of all of your bulky charger cables and tangled cords for good. That’s the vision of a startup called uBeam, which aims to make widespread wireless charging a reality. uBeam uses ultrasound to transmit electricity from a thin charging station to a small receiver attached to the device needing a charge. Anytime that device is in range of the uBeam station, it’s receiving power — giving your smartphone, laptop or wearable access to a continuous power supply.
The downside is that uBeam is unable to transfer power through walls, so in order to charge, the device has to be in the same room as the charging station. But if founder Meredith Perry is successful, uBeam units will be available in a wide variety of locations, such as restaurants, coffee shops, and hotels, and any smartphone outfitted with the receiving device will be able to benefit. “If wireless power is everywhere, then the size of your battery can shrink because it’s always charging.” she said. “You’ll never need a cord again, and you won’t need international charging adapters.” Perry aims to get uBeam in stores within the next two years.
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