Why current smartphone batteries suck

Thomas Wellburn
June 4, 2015

It’s hard to believe that batteries are such a fundamental part of portable technology yet so little has changed in their implementation and design. With a typical smartphone battery barely scraping a day of moderate use, are there any impending technologies that could change the way these primitive peripherals work?

Batteries are one of the worst parts of a smartphone; they start losing capacity as soon as you purchase them and always seem to die at the worst possible moments. Expert Reviews compiled a battery test last year, taking 60 smartphones and subjecting them to endless video playback. The average battery life ranged from a dire 4 hours 52 minutes to a respectable 20 hours 1 minute. What the results of the test clearly showed is that most phones don’t last over 12 hours, meaning a day of heavy usage is enough to drain them completely.

With this in mind, it’s clear that battery technology still has a long way to go. The current solution of simply increasing the size and capacity of the installed battery is old and primitive. Sure it works, but you also sacrifice size and weight to get those precious extra hours. Some phones have managed to find a decent balance, such as the OnePlus One which has a whopping 3,1oomAh, but the average consumer prioritises areas such as aesthetics and weight just as much as battery life. If there was ever a better time for a radical battery technology overhaul, it would be now.

Power for change

Battery technology has been moving incredibly slow this past decade, with little if any improvements. They still use the same materials as they did all those years ago. Lithium-ion was our last great breakthrough and the process differs very little from the Alkali batteries which preceded it. Consisting of graphite anodes which are given an electrical charge, the lithium is found in the electrolytes but not in the anodes themselves. It just so happens that these anodes get damaged over time, meaning that the stated maximum capacity starts to decrease the moment you purchase your device. This isn’t the con of the century but rather a prime example of the primitive technology we are dealing with here.

You may think it’s as easy as replacing the material for something else, but there are many variables that it needs to satisfy before we can consider it as a viable alternative. How safe is it? How many charges can it stand? What sort of density (capacity) can the material withstand? Then there’s the other glaring issue with current batteries: charging time. For some devices, it takes almost as long as it does for the battery to deplete, which is less than ideal. In a world where time defines everything we do, it would be nice to have them charge a little bit faster than they currently do.

Energise the market

While the above sounds pretty bleak, you’ll be pleased to know that we’ve made bigger jumps in the last few years than we have in decades. It’s fair to say that the majority of the technology isn’t round the corner but we can expect some changes to how we use our smartphones in the coming years. The idea of electrical energy has become much more embedded in modern society, with huge companies spearheading research into the technology.

You’ve got Tesla, Toyota, Honda and various car firms pumping massive amounts of research and development into these areas, desperate to find the next big thing. For Tesla especially, their entire business model revolves around the idea of electrical energy and rechargeable cars. Then you have huge spectator sports companies like FIA, who are spearheading new forms of motor racing such as Formula E. All of this culminates into a huge focus shift where batteries and battery technology will surely reap the benefits.

Graphite is so 2014

Graphite is beginning to reach its theoretical limits, with diminishing returns on its capabilities. Students at the University of Stanford have managed to find a suitable replacement in aluminium that might solve some of its shortcomings. The main positives to this new material lies in safety and performance, as aluminium won’t spontaneously combust in your hand or damage the environment. Charging efficiency also sees a huge increase, as initial tests by the engineers have revealed that the prototype battery can fully charge in under one minute. Even more impressive, the prototype can last a massive 7,500 charge cycles versus the accepted 1,000 cycles of a lithium-ion.

Then there are the astronomical claims of researchers at Nanyang Technology University in Singapore, who state that they’ve created batteries which charge in 2 minutes and last for over 20 years. Yes, you heard that correctly. 20 years. Using titanium dioxide nanotubes which are 1,000 times thinner than a human hair, they’ve replaced the graphite anodes with something far denser and stabler. Again, you see a recurring theme. It’s all about finding safe, denser materials to replace that outdated, pesky graphite.

Closer than you think

Dyson have been busy investing their money into an achievable technology, one that could potentially be integrated into existing batteries with little effort. The Sakri3 technology replaces the traditional liquid electrolytes with solid metal versions, meaning that denser, more powerful materials van be used without the battery becoming unstable. Using this technology, the company claim to have produced a battery with a density of 1100 watt hours, 50 percent better than current batteries. Even better, the company has moved beyond the prototype stage and begun scaling up in an attempt to move them into full production. This means that we could be seeing battery capacities jump by fairly substantial amounts in the near future.

Fully charged

What does all this mean for the average consumer? Well, not very much really. Your typical battery is not set to change that radically over the next couple of years but there are advancements being made. Anything being experimented on within a university is typically blue-sky research, i.e. aim for the clouds and hope something good comes out of it. The best we can hope for in the short term are companies such as Sakri3, who have the technology in place and want to mass produce it.

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