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All About Battery Life (Part 2)

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Batteries are fine, but what happens when you can’t charge them? That’s precisely the problem that faces expeditions to remote places or just those for whom a power socket isn’t readily available.

The solution is a fuel cell, which, as the name suggests, converts chemical energy into electricity, allowing battery-based devices to be recharged or run directly from the fuel cell.

The conventional fuels for these devices are hydrogen, though other flammable gases and liquids like methanol have also been used successfully. Their technological origins go back to the Victorian era, but their value was demonstrated by Nasa, which has used fuel cells on its spacecraft from its earliest manned missions.

Fuel Cells

The solution is a fuel cell, which, as the name suggests, converts chemical energy into electricity, allowing battery-based devices to be recharged or run directly from the fuel cell.

So could a fuel cell extend your computing experience? Yes, and in fact there are a few products close to availability. An MIT spin-off, Lilliputian Systems of Wilmington Massachusetts, has designed a tiny USB portable charger that uses cartridges containing lighter fluid to deliver multiple charges to any compatible device.

The prototype device is about the size of a thick phone, and can offer between ten and 14 full recharges to a typical iPhone. The price of the device is expected to be less than $200, and each fuel cartridge just a few dollars.

The fuel cell has impressed those that have used it, and Lilliputian Systems has not only been able to crack a deal with BrookStone to distribute its first product, but it also successfully attained $60m in equity finance from its investors. Brookstone and Lilliputian will make a formal product announcement in the coming months, so hopefully ts device will be another option to extend battery life in 2013.

Nanotubes To The Rescue

Carbon nanotube (that odd organisation of carbon atoms into very useful structures) have many uses, it’s been discovered. Graphene, as it’s now being referred to, has some especially interesting electrical properties, some of which might be incredibly useful for battery technology.

The one that scientists at MIT first alighted to was to do with the huge surface area that graphene offers, which is much greater than the graphite that’s traditionally been used. The first prototype battery demonstrated in 2010 increased the charge by about 30% more in the same volume. That’s a modest increase but one that is certainly worth having. The graphene battery also showed some other unique properties to do with how rapidly charge could be stored and subsequently released.

The Tesla Roadster, an super-car that’s powered by batteries. It can travel up to 245 miles on a charge and accelerate to 60mph in just 3.7 seconds, but charging it from a household electrical outlet could take 60 hours!

The Tesla Roadster, an super-car that’s powered by batteries. It can travel up to 245 miles on a charge and accelerate to 60mph in just 3.7 seconds, but charging it from a household electrical outlet could take 60 hours!

That allows the batteries to output increased power, which could certainly be of use in automotive applications, but it also allows the batteries to charge must faster too.

For problems that need fast charge and release, the solution has been to use electrochemical capacitors, but these new graphene batteries provide a whole new layer between conventional lithium-ion tech and those more extreme devices.

That begs the question: why aren’t we using this now? Unfortunately, developing commercial solutions working with tubes that are just one 50,000th of the thickness of a human hair isn’t a priority for Yang Shao-Horn, an associate professor of materials science and mechanical engineering. She’s more interested in understanding the chemistry that their prototypes use, which has yet to be fully understood.

While this work is interesting in the wider context of battery technology, it probably won’t be what powers a future phone or PC. Nevertheless, it might demonstrate a path to making recharging less of a chore and something that could reduce the impact of the limited carrying capacity we have now.

However, this isn’t the only way that nanotubes can help our power needs.

Fatter And Faster

It’s worth considering that part of the battery life issue is the time it takes to charge, because if it didn’t take so long, then we’d do it more regularly without much concern.

The most common type of battery used in computing devices is the lithium-ion variety, which has ousted other chemistry in the past ten years. The technology of this material has some unusual properties, some that slow down how rapidly it can be charged. What you might be unaware of when you’re charging your phone is that the battery grows, as a charged cell occupies more volume than a depleted one.

Also, the battery is charged from the outside in, so if you make the battery fatter for greater capacity, it takes even longer to charge.

You can break the cell into small pieces, but this only helps a little. A new approach by Korean scientists, working at the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST), appears to have solved this problem.

Their solution is amazingly simple: they take the cathode material (lithium manganese oxide in this case) and soak it in a solution containing graphite. That creates fibrous conductive pathways throughout the cathode, allowing power to penetrate the battery much more easily. It’s then packaged with the graphite anode component as in a normal battery and you have a device that is identical in performance, other than it can charge between 30 and 120 times faster.

The catch? The battery is marginally bigger, which means that it might not be ideal for phones, but it could be used in laptops, and it’s perfect for traditionally long-charging technology, like electric vehicles.

More Anode Options

Using graphite as the anode in batteries goes back to the very earliest battery designs, because it’s cheap and plentiful, and it works well enough.

Yet much of the research into new battery concepts has focused on this part of the battery as being the key to superior performance.

Rice University has developed a means to spray batteries onto any surface, allowing them to become part of construction materials

Rice University has developed a means to spray batteries onto any surface, allowing them to become part of construction materials

3M, for example, has spent many millions of dollars and 15 years exploring using silicon as the anode, another cheap and plentiful material. Why? Well, graphite doesn’t actually store much charge for its volume, giving a low charge density. The work that 3M has now completed using silicon boosts the energy density by around 20%, but another 20% extra power can be had by using new high-energy cathode technology that 3M has also developed. A total of 40% extra power for the same volume is a significant improvement and one that most mobile phone and computer users would be keen to see.

The problem for 3M is that if it doesn’t get this technology to market soon, it could be overtaken by other developments in both anode and cathode chemistry.

One of these candidates has been developed by research company CalBattery, which also uses a silicon anode, but its design mixes that silicon with graphene.

Dubbed ‘GEN3’ by CalBattery, the anode substrate it’s developed is a silicon-graphene composite that solves the problem that many battery chemists have encountered when experimenting with silicon. Namely, that silicon absorbs lithium better than any other anode material, but the charge/discharge cycles causes the combination to chemically alter, providing a short life-span. CalBattery claims to have solved that problem and in the process delivered triple the power density for the same volume and mass.

With CalBattery aiming to get products to market in the next two years, this could be the battery revolution that could see electric cars become much more practical and phones that work much longer than a day between recharges.

These are just two of the companies involved in this line of research, but numerous other companies are investing heavily in battery research, including General Motors and Envia Systems, who together are aiming to sell electric vehicles with 200-plus mile ranges in the next four years. Tesla Motors is also working with PolyPlus, and their lithium-air and lithium-water battery technology aiming to get 500 miles of charge in a car. With that level of power density, surely making a phone or laptop work for longer isn’t just a pipe-dream?

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