Who doesn't know the agony of having a phone, laptop or tablet die at a critical moment? Given how charging up at a public outlet might be verboten now, I'm eyeing battery technology like never before.
Seriously — we can do so much with our devices, and still our utility is shackled by an average three-to-five-hour window of opportunity? While this may take care of short outings, when I'm away from home all day long, I'm often relegated to asking friends, family, even random businesses, for a little juice. Yes, I've become an energy beggar. Sad, but true.
Of course, your mileage may vary. I live in an area with inconsistent cellular coverage, so my phone always seems to go into random spurts of signal hunting, which is a death sentence for batteries. And with all this "cloud" hoopla, I have to admit that I pretty much live online, which hits my laptop where it hurts. I can eek out a little more power, as long as I shut down nearly everything that makes my computer worth taking along or gives my phone its "smart"-ness. But the more I do that, the more I wonder why I have these mobile gadgets in the first place. At this rate, I could just get an eBook reader and a featurephone, and call it a day. The functionality would be similar, and it would be incredibly cheaper.
I'm suddenly reminded of my old (ancient) Samsung SCH-A670, my very last feature phone. It could last at least three days on a single charge, even with medium-to-heavy usage. Of course, I did little else with it aside from snap pics and make calls, but still, I really miss not having to hook up a cable every few hours.
Not that there haven't been any strides in power management at all. One area in particular that deserves a shout-out is mobile processors. These mighty little chipsets are getting more energy efficient as time goes on, allowing for better battery life on increasingly powerful devices.
But a beefy A5, Snapdragon or even i7 can't do it alone, not in the face of multitasking, higher-res displays, location services, 3G/Wi-Fi radios and all the other things we demand from our tech.
There has to be a better solution, either in the batteries themselves or in charging technologies. I started looking around, to see where the momentum might be in the power niche. Sure, Apple is rumored to be looking at a new charging solution of some sort, but it's too early to say how innovative that will be yet. Otherwise, here are some promising new endeavors:
- Solar: More solar chargers are appearing on the scene than ever, from the likes of Solio and ThinkGeek's FreeLoader. Unfortunately, this technology is pretty limited — obviously, if you live in a cloudier or grayer climate, you won't get the "fast charging" power of eight to 10 hours of sunlight exposure. Wouldn't you know, it happened to be cloudy when I tested a Solio, and it took an unforgivable two weeks for it to fill up one single measly charge. Still, it's a green solution, and I could see leaving one of these in my car dashboard for emergency fill ups, but I wouldn't depend on it. Hopefully, solar cell technology will be able to make some advancements here.
- Fast-Charge Solutions: KeenCell Battery Technology is one company innovating forward with a rapid-charge solution that can juice up a battery in as little as 5 minutes. That's definitely a step in the right direction. It has a Cellular Beta Program (CBP) that smartphones including those from Blackberry, HTC, LG, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, and Sony Ericsson, are involved in.
- Piezoelectricity Research: Australian researchers have been delving into piezoelectric technology (energy captured and stored from physical pressure). News broke recently that, for the first time, they've been able to control voltage generation within piezoelectric thin films. A greater level of control would really allow this technology to take off.
- Piezoelectric Products: When it comes to piezoelectricity, there's more than one way to "juice a batt": Piezoelectricity relies on a thin film sensing pressure or vibration, and this film can be sewed into apparel. That lead UK mobile operator Orange to develop a festival T-shirt that can power phones. The user wears the shirt to an event, and the sound waves from all that formerly annoying crowd noise charges up their devices. Unfortunately, although it's promising, it has not been perfected yet. The T-shirt doesn't capture a whole lot of power — unless you happen to be right next to a huge outdoor speaker. But apparently Orange is all over the charging dilemma: Last year, it made "wellies" (Wellington boots) embedded with chargers in the heel, to capture the impact of a walking user and convert that to power. Before that, they even produced little mini windmills capable of producing a charge.
- Kinetic Energy: The U.S. Army developed backpacks that capture the energy of soldiers' movements. The troops basically power their own gear, with energy that can be stored for use even when they stop moving. This means they can be less bogged down with equipment on hikes or missions. And, to end on a "too silly to be false" note, researchers are even working on a bra that can harness movement (say, from athletes) and turn it into enough energy to power an iPod.
These are just a few examples of some of the creative thinking being applied to current and future battery technology. We may not enjoy 22nd-century tech like lithium-air batteries (and their colossal energy capacities) anytime soon, but hopefully we'll get to see some of these other advancements progress and get adopted into more widespread consumer usage.
Personally, I'd love to see a mix of solutions — maybe a laptop or phone with a solar panel backing, with a piezoelectric film embedded inside the device, so that calls or the sound of typing would actually help power the device while being used. All of this, of course, would work with a built-in KeenCell battery, so they rapid-charge whenever a cable is still needed. And while we're at it, why not a battery that's smaller and lighter too? That would save an awful lot of space that could be used for other droolworthy internal kit.
But why stop at mobile devices? If batteries could last longer, charge faster, get greener or even power themselves, imagine what that could do for the automobile, healthcare or other industries. The more I think about it, the more I believe that the future relies on battery innovations.
What would your dream scenario be? A smartphone that never needs charging, thanks to piezoelectric energy? Or a kinetically charged MP3 player? A laptop with built-in solar panels?
A Duke University grad student looked into what many of us have suspected for a long time: Wi-Fi is not only a battery drain, but several gadgets in the same place all competing for the same signal can make it worse. His solution? SleepWell, a system that alleviates Wi-Fi congestion by staggering device activity cycles. This allows devices to sleep while a neighboring gadget downloads data. By preventing them from overlapping with each other, the devices actually wind up preserving energy. Even without this system, there's little reason why end users can't take this advice in their own manual usage.