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Race for Brawnier Batteries :: Business Week

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  • RemyC
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 8, 2004
      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.

      From:
      http://businessweek.com/technology/content/jun2004/tc2004068_2972_tc149.htm
      via: http://www.corante.com/personal/redir/48479.html

      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
      hours.

      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.

      http://mecs.oregonstate.edu
      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
      mecs@ engr.orst.edu

      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.
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