The Battery Tech Fuelling Our Long-Lasting Gadgets of the Future

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With each passing week it seems as though there's a brand new gizmo designed to enhance our daily lives and make life a tiny bit easier going into the future. But there's a bit of a problem with that; people have got used to said gizmos improving and advancing at an ever increasing rate and the batteries just can't keep up. Advanced features need power, and current battery technology can only provide so much. But that trend is slowly becoming the exception, and for that we can thank advances in battery technology as well as the increased power efficiency of our gadgets.

Recently, phone makers have been using some of their resources to ensure that phone batteries last as long as possible, and give them the edge over their competitors. One such development includes batteries with high power/density ratios (more power stored in a smaller space), but the main concern is making sure that new phones don't use obscene amounts of power to do basic functions. There are many ways of doing that, but it mostly focuses on ensuring the software doesn’t burn through power at a ridiculous rate, ensuring the components themselves run as efficiently as possible, and that the phones have power-saving modes to keep them going when power is scarce.

But it’s not just about the phones themselves, a lot of advances are being made in battery tech. One notable example is solid state battery technology, which is being pioneered by the likes of Dyson. Solid state works by using solid electrodes and electrolytes, rather than the liquid used in lithium ion batteries. This means that they can hold a lot more energy than the batteries we use now (1,000 watts per cubic litre vs 620 watts). That’s a great advantage in itself, but solid state batteries also have higher electronic resistance which means that they have a lower rate of self discharge and higher charge retention. Simply put, they can hold a larger amount of power for a longer period of time.

Plus, unlike lithium-ion batteries, solid state batteries are not made from flammable material, making them safer overall.

The problem with solid state batteries is that they’re still rather expensive to produce, despite advances in the speed and accuracy of the manufacturing process. For that reason scientists haven’t completely abandoned lithium-ion batteries, and are making a lot of progress.

Recently researchers made a massive step in preventing lithium-ion batteries from going bad by discovering why it happens in the first place. It turns out that when Lithium ions move across the battery’s anode they cause minor breaks, and similarly when moving across the cathode they end up depositing a crust. Both of these end up reducing the battery’s capacity over time. The fact that we know this means research can be done to prevent it from happening.

One of the issues with lithium-ion batteries is that pure lithium is only present in the liquid electrolyte, whereas the electrodes are made out of other materials. A battery made purely out of lithium has the capability to be a lot more efficient than what we currently have. Electrodes made out of lithium expand too much during the charging process and break down. But research has discovered that adding a thin layer of carbon (20 nanometres or so) the lithium can be protected as it expands. The sad news is that pure lithium batteries are not efficient enough to be commercially viable right now, but they’re not far off.

Efficiency is one thing, but batteries also need to be able to last a long time without degrading -- especially if they’re embedded into our tech or cost a lot to replace. Thankfully researchers in Singapore have managed to create a lithium ion battery that lasts 20 years before it needs replacing. This battery uses titanium dioxide gel as the anode, and turning the compound into a nanostructure ensures the battery lasts 20-times longer, and charges 20-times faster than conventional commercial batteries can. This would be great for smartphones, but a long-lasting, fast charging battery is ideal for use in electric cars as well.

As great as the progress we’ve made is, there are always alternatives. There have been some promising developments in aluminium batteries which can supposedly charge from zero to full in a single minute and have a lifespan of 7,500 charging cycles. They also contain less toxic chemicals than Lithium-ion batteries, and are less flammable as a result. Plus, as an extra bonus, they’re supposed to be completely flexible, which paves the way for having bendable phones sometime in the future.

But, batteries can only get so far and you can’t always get to a charging port. That’s why phone makers and researchers are working on creating a touchscreen that’s also a solar panel. That way the phone will get a smidge of juice every time you use it. While the sun's in the sky (and our local star has about 5 billion years left before it kicks the bucket), you'd always have enough juice to send just one last tweet.

In partnership with Microsoft, powered by the HP Spectre 360