Batteries are perhaps the biggest limiting factor in creating amazing technological advancement. As superhero expert E. Paul Zehr said in this recent interview with Smart Planet: The power source is the biggest challenge in using robotics of the sort worn by Iron Man, "Maybe something innovative will come out of all the work done with electric cars, although you wouldn’t want to lug a 200-pound battery around. So we could very well have a suit that we could control...but if you still have to plug it into the wall? Forget it. That’s not going to work."
Some areas of technology, like processing speeds and storage capacities, are surging forward sometimes at exponential rates. But batteries are only inching ahead with about 3 to 5 percent improvement annually. And the magic answer remains elusive.
So it’s important news when Hewlett Packard (HP) finds a creative way to make a lap top battery that can last through five cross-Atlantic flights without plugging in. And it’s important because this is a $50 billion industry and a much longer-lasting power source will prove necessary for viable mobile computing and robotics.
In the short run, however, the immediate pressures on the battery are to make it thinner, lighter and more powerful.
Last year HP launched the EliteBook laptop but to get to 32 hours one has to add an extended life notebook battery which also happens to add an extra pound to the machine. Immediately there is a compromise in mobility. At least for those of us with bad backs.
But the power is there. Inside the pack we find nine battery cells that look like thin long pink hot dogs lined up. It doubles the longevity of the laptop providing an extra 100-watt hours of life, which is apparently the legal limit. According to an article in Venture Beat any more powerful and it would have to ship as dangerous goods.
The ultimate solutions to demand may not be arriving quickly, so HP strives to solve the demand in other ways. They have designed better ways for laptops to use energy, like shutting off components when not in use. Of course as consumers we can also turn down screen brightness. In fact the component that drains the most power is the display. Touchscreens, which are integral to the ever-increasing use of tablets, are the biggest culprit. HP builds its EliteBook laptops with light sensors that adjust brightness based on how much light is in a room.
HP also found that it improved battery life by 18 percent by just replacing a hard drive with a solid-state flash memory drive. Hard drives suck up a lot of energy because they need to spin a dense piece of metal.
They also use Intel’s Sandy Bridge Integrated graphics which combine a microprocessor and graphics on the same chip. This extended battery power by 26 percent.
The complications in developing a more powerful battery involve trade offs. A silver zinc battery can offer a lot more energy density but it breaks down after 50 charges. Replacing carbon graphite with silicon ought to help battery life since silicon can store more energy. But this significantly increases its size since silicon must be wrapped in carbon to protect from overheating and leakage. Lithium batteries are what we use in our laptops today but as many have experienced, the cell’s capacity decreases over time. And there is also the overheating problem. As many of us have no doubt experienced, our gadgets get quite hot with use. And of course there is the danger of sparking fires.
But John Wozniak, the battery expert at HP, is hopeful that new breakthroughs are coming.
“I don’t know what the next one is. There are a lot of new chemistries. The Holy Grail for the battery industry is to have a non-flammable electrolyte.”
A lot of smart people are working on this challenge, especially at the Department of Defense and energy companies since lithium batteries will only be viable for large-scale duty when the flammable issue is resolved.