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Nanotech extends battery life for smartphones, satellites, supercomputers

Nanotech extends battery life for smartphones, satellites, supercomputers

Posting in Energy

Using nanotubes, University of Illinois engineers have developed ultra-low-power digital memory that is faster and uses 100 times less energy than conventional memory.

Like electric cars, the one weak link in the rapidly advancing technology of electronic devices is the battery.

As memory capacity grows and processors become faster than ever, the battery remains a large, clunky component. Mobile handsets are thinner and lighter than ever -- except for that battery.

University of Illinois engineers may have found a loophole. The researchers say they have developed a kind of ultra-low-power digital memory that is faster and uses 100 times less energy than conventional memory on the market.

Simply, instead of developing a better battery, they've developed components that use less energy and give portable electronic devices much longer battery life between charges.

The flash memory used in today's mobile devices stores bits as charge, which is slow and requires high programming voltages. An alternative is faster (but higher power) phase-change materials, or PCM, in which a bit is stored in the resistance of the material, which is switchable.

Led by professor Eric Pop, the team was able to lower the power per bit to 100 times less than existing PCM memory.

The answer? Size. Instead of using metal wires as contacts, the group chose carbon nanotubes, which are some 10,000 times smaller than a human hair.

Energy efficiency is not the only benefit. Nanotubes are quite stable, and don't degrade like metal wires do. Moreover, a magnet can't accidentally erase the content that's stored.

For a smartphone, that means a user can retrieve and store data -- while using an app, or downloading music, or streaming videos -- with less drain on the battery.

Which means your next iPhone may have longer battery life yet a smaller battery.

The tech isn't just for consumer goods: scientific and military applications stand to benefit too, such as for satellites and other telecommunications gear in remote locations, or for use in supercomputers and other datacenters.

The researchers will publish their results in an upcoming issue of Science magazine.

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure