Beyond Lithium: Smartphone Battery Woes

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I have a friend who’s a smartphone enthusiast. Well, all of us do, but in my case, this particular friend – let’s call him R – is genuinely holy-shit-did-you-see-that-<insert inconsequential update / hack here>- crazy, and it’s fair to say he’s hacked more high-end smartphones that I’ve ever owned.

R and I have one big argument between us: the battery life of flagship smartphones. I point out that battery tech is still stuck in the 80’s. Well, perhaps that’s not entirely fair. The first commercial lithium-ion battery came out in 1991, and since then things have generally improved. But while we’ve made exponential leaps in phone processors, graphics, operating systems and finding new ways of being unproductive, battery life has gotten progressively worse. The modern smartphone, with all bells and whistles enabled, can barely chug through a day of hard work.

To which R replies that 10 hours on a single charge is good enough for a smartphone. Certainly good enough for him.

To which I point out that some people actually DO spent entire hours at a time away from the phone charger.

To which he points out that I don’t actually own a flagship smartphone (Lumia 525 for the win), and therefore my argument is irrelevant.

But seriously.

I might be wrong here, but I think that a phone that does only 20 hours on a single charge is a bit of a loser. I also believe that if someone packs all these awesome features into a smartphone, we should be able to use them without having to worry about our devices running out juice every hour of so.

Part of the problem is that we’ve failed to invent the Arc Reactor. As our devices grow ever more powerful, manufacturers have very little option other than to chuck those mAh’s at the consumer – and to keep chucking them.

Part of the problem seems to be the compartmentalized nature of smartphone production. A company like, say, Apple, with all its billions in the bank, could easily shovel huge amounts of money into making a next-generation battery. They could probably overcome the lithium problem (along with world hunger). However, they’re not doing it, because they aren’t the ones making the batteries; all of that is subcontracted. Somewhere out there is a Chinese company producing batteries at a ridiculously cheap price – in Apple’s case, it’s probably Foxconn. There’s no real incentive to innovate. Heck, they’re making bank. and they’d rather spend those millions on the next Johnny Ive special.

The same goes for companies like Samsung, LG, HTC – even Nokia. What technologies they directly work on, they influence – Nokia comes out with great cameras, LG has its IPS displays, Samsung has AMOLED, Exynos chipsets – and so on. Batteries, however, are still the outsourced grunt labor of the smartphone industry.

This is not going to change. Until somebody invents a fantastically efficient battery, or we hit a power ceiling, manufacturers are hardly likely to bring the combined weight and effort they spend outdoing each other in the processors wars to bear on the lowly question of battery power.

That said, there are a number of potential technologies on the horizon. Phys.org recently published an article on a potentially promising discovery in rechargeable lithium-sulfur batteries. It involves wrapping a layer of graphene – which by itself is shaping up to be the biggest thing since sliced bread – around a sulfur electrode to boost performance. Regardless of whether the graphene idea works out commercially (or not), lithium sulfur batteries a drawing a lot of interest because there’s a good chance they might turn out to be better than the lithium-ion batteries we use now.

Then there’s Titanium dioxide, which Singapore’s Nanyang Technology University is focusing on. It’s likely to see use in electric vehicles, though – as of now, it’s unclear whether the technology (which allows batteries that charge faster and last for much, much longer) actually scales at a smartphone level.

Then there’s Stanford University’s “Holy Grail” battery, potentially capable of tripling the battery life of a conventional lithium-ion design. I personally believe that this technology, if it made it out of the lab, would be adopted far faster than any of the others – after all, it doesn’t involve the huge amounts of change that the other technologies herald.

At the end of the day, it’s all about business. The bottom line is profit – how long you can keep rolling without having to invest in new tech?

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