Race for Brawnier Batteries :: Business Week
- Provides an update on alternative batteries under development as well as
alternative energy sources such as fuel cells for laptop computers. To meet
laptop's increasing power requirements, Joseph Carcone of Sanyo Energy (USA)
believes manufacturers must increase the density of a lithium-ion battery by
5% to 15% annually, but that process can lead to an unstable battery. Also,
Toshiba plans to release a fuel cell powered laptop next year with a battery
life of 5 to 10 hours, but fuel cells must become more efficient and less
costly to manufacture before widespread adoption. Also profiled: a new
device under development at Oregon State University (contact info below)
that generates electricity from heat transfer that could create a battery
"seven times" more powerful than current batteries. Ultimately, gains in
battery life can/must also be made through better power-management chips and
displays that use less power.
JUNE 8, 2004
SPECIAL REPORT: THE FUTURE OF COMPUTING
The Race for Brawnier Batteries
As laptops and other electronic devices demand ever-more juice, researchers
are scrambling to come up with better power sources
Since 1985, when Toshiba first introduced notebook computers, it seems like
everything about the laptop has improved -- except for their batteries.
Screen displays have increased from 10 inches to today's standard 14 to 17
inches. Processors have become more powerful, and designs are more
lightweight and user-friendly. Alas, that still-clunky battery always seems
to die after about two hours of use, with a few shrill warning beeps.
Actually battery power and performance have seen some improvements over the
past few years. The problem is, they just haven't kept up with the demands
of today's devices. It isn't just business users who now must cart suitcases
full of rechargers for everything from cell phones to personal digital
assistants. Consider the hardships faced by U.S. soldiers in Iraq, many of
whom lug more than 20 pounds worth of batteries to support their inventory
of high-tech gear -- and might soon have to carry even more.
Small wonder that, pressured by customers, battery manufacturers including
Sanyo Energy (USA), Toshiba, and a slew of U.S.-based startups have joined
the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Energy Dept.
on a quest for far smaller units with plenty more juice and staying power.
At stake is a $1.22 billion rechargeable battery market, expected to grow to
$1.73 billion by 2007, according to business consultancy Freedonia Group.
The search ranges from finding improvements in existing batteries to
developing entire new energy sources, such as fuel cells.
CHEMICAL TWEAKS. Consider how the dominant laptop battery on the market
today, the lithium-ion battery, works. Think of it as a small frozen dinner
container, with two compartments and a little electrode dipped into each
compartment. One electrode has a positive charge, and the other electrode,
made of lithium, has a negative charge. Filling both compartments is
electrolyte, often a gel-like liquid allowing electrons to continuously run
between the electrodes -- and provide their energy to the computer.
To keep up with the laptop's increasing power requirements, manufacturers
figure they'll have to increase the battery's density -- the power it can
produce per unit of weight -- by 5% to 15% annually, says Joseph Carcone,
vice-president for sales and marketing at the world's largest rechargeable
battery maker, Sanyo Energy (USA). That can be done by tweaking the
chemistry of either of the electrodes or the electrolyte to boost the
current. But that can be tricky: If not done right, it can lead to an
unstable -- and explosive -- battery.
That's why scientists from Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y.,
are developing a new kind of electrolyte comprising boron and organic
materials. The mix shows promise of producing a stronger energy flow and,
ultimately, better battery performance. The electrolyte also prevents
chemical gunk and residue from forming on the surface of the battery's
positive electrode, which cuts its efficiency, says Xiao-Qing Yang, who's
leading Brookhaven's Energy Dept.-funded battery research. Another benefit:
It's less expensive than the electrolyte used in batteries today, says Yang.
FLEXIBLE PERFORMERS. Other companies, like electronics maker
Netherlands-based Koninklijke Philips Electronics (PHG ), are working on
polymer-based electrolytes. Malleable and form-fitting, these electrolytes
can't leak or burst, as liquid electrolytes can. Polymer batteries also
don't have to be round or square. Theoretically, they can be fitted into any
space and remain flexible -- and that's a major plus in handheld
electronics, where space is precious.
Performance can also be improved by tweaking the electrodes' composition.
Startup Sion Power in Tuscon, Ariz., has developed a battery that uses
sulfur in the positive end of the electrode. The battery lasts twice as long
as a typical lithium-ion device, Sion claims. A prototype, demonstrated at
Microsoft's (MSFT ) Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in Seattle last
month, kept laptops running for up to eight hours, says Melvin Miller,
Sion's president and CEO (and a serial entrepreneur who sold one of his
previous businesses for $500 million). Sion is now starting pilot
manufacturing and plans to begin commercial production in the second half of
2005, he says.
In Austin, battery maker Valence Technology (VLNC ) is using phosphates in
the positive electrolyte in its batteries. The addition makes them more
stable and less prone to short-circuiting, says CEO Stephan Godevais, who
previously headed a Dell (DELL ) unit focused on notebook and desktop
computers for consumers and small businesses. Released in February and sold
at retail stores like Best Buy (BBY ), Valence claims its product offers up
to 10 hours of laptop power.
POWER FROM HEAT? Many believe that the traditional laptop battery will
eventually be replaced with a completely different technology. Interest is
high in fuel cells, which convert oxygen and hydrogen into water and, in the
process, generate heat and electricity. While they're considered most
promising in providing future power for cars, Toshiba expects to release in
the next year a laptop powered by fuel cells. A prototype lasts 5 to 10
Still, before they enter the mainstream, fuel cells need to become more
efficient and less costly to manufacture. They might find broader commercial
applications in a few years, backers believe. But they'll be pressured by
other alternative technologies.
Researchers at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore., are exploring how
to generate electricity from heat transfer.
M.Kevin Drost, Director
Center for Microtechnology-Based Energy, Chemical and Biological Systems
Oregon State Univ. Corvallis, OR 97331-6001
541.737.2575 (FAX) 541.737.2600
They've developed a device -- the size of Lincoln's nose on a penny --
that's essentially two tiny tubes, one inserted within the other. When fuel
within the innermost tube is ignited, the external tube catches the
generated heat, and the device turns it into energy.
LESS HUNGRY. Engineering issues must still be overcome, such as how to keep
the heat in check. But this device could create a battery that's seven times
more powerful than today's, says Kevin Drost, co-director of researcher
Microproducts Breakthrough Institute.
Increasing the staying power of batteries also will depend on making better
power-management chips -- which moderate the laptop's power thirst. And
displays, which suck up more than half of an average laptop's battery, have
to start using less power, says Partha Ranganathan, senior research
scientist at computer maker Hewlett-Packard's (HPQ ) Research Labs.
HP, for one, has designed special power-management software that, instead of
putting the laptop to sleep during periods of inactivity, lowers the
intensity of the colors on the screen or makes unused parts of the display
look dimmer. This can slice battery drain by 30% to 95%, depending on the
applications being used, Ranganathan says. As computing devices get
smarter and offer more features, battery makers will have no choice but to
experiment and innovate. They'll need all the power they can muster.
By Olga Kharif in Portland, Ore.