I can picture it now. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader face off for an epic
light-saber battle to the death! The fate of the world hangs in the balance!
Then their light-saber batteries run out of juice so they’re left holding
onto a couple of limp licorice sticks, resulting in a leg-wrestling
extravaganza. Yoda wouldn’t stand a chance. Not quite what George Lucas had in
mind for the ultimate Star Wars battle scene.
With all of the tremendous advances that are taking place in our world of
internet and wireless existence, a person may never consider that the ‘holy
grail’ is in the field of battery life. You might have thought that it would be
the next generation of wireless devices that allow you to project holographic
images of the Google screen so that you can do web searches in mid-air in the
airport. Yep, it’s true – it’s in the works! The restricting problem is that
little-considered power source we simply take for granted. The simple battery.
It has been confounding for a century now.
Thomas Edison said, “I don’t think that nature would be so unkind as to
withhold the secret of a good storage battery if a real earnest hunt for it is
made. I’m going to hunt.” That was more than a hundred years ago and the
foxes are still out. In fact the hunt is getting very intense.
In a recent article in ‘Wired’, John Hockenberry states that, “In the
last 150 years battery performance has improved only about eightfold. The speed
and capacity of silicon chips, of course, improves that much every six
In curious irony, as I write this article on my laptop, on an airplane, on
my way to Charlotte, my battery has declared bankruptcy and I now have to
resort to my back up power source – pen and paper. How Neanderthal! My hand is
actually aching because my fingers are apparently out of shape for these
callisthenic demands. I thought that my two-fingered typing was just as good as
a Gold’s membership for these types of events but I am woefully wrong. It’s
just another reason that better batteries are required – we can’t write
anymore, opposable thumbs or not, – it’s just an evolutionary thing.
It seems that our insatiable demand for self-powered consumer electronics is
driving the battery wars to new heights. Suffice it to say that the spoils of
this war will far exceed the wampum that Edison received for that light bulb
As devices miniaturize in size, yet enrich in features, the hapless battery
is forced to produce more power in less space. If battery capability stagnates,
as history has dictated so far, then portable device capability will follow
suit. Yet our demand, and the ability of manufacturers to supply, indicates a
burgeoning market for wireless devices to make our lunch, tie our shoes,
entertain us, and generally make our lives dependent on such units.
The problem is that all that functionality is dependent on the development
of more efficient, more powerful, and smaller power sources. Oh yeah, and
safety seems to matter as well, as evidenced by the recent spate of
spontaneously combusting laptops caused by the fire-starter known as the Li-ion
battery. Thermal runaway is the name of the culprit, and it means that the
chemicals in the battery break out of their metal casing, which causes the
lithium to ignite when it makes contact with moisture in the air.
Without getting technical, voltage and current are created chemically to
generate power through the movement of electrons from pole to pole in the
battery. As we have progressed through lead acid for car starters, to alkaline
and mercury for transistor radios, to nickel and cadmium for the first laptops
and video cameras, to lithium rechargeables for current electronics, including
MP3 players, camcorders, and Blackberries, the digital demands keep
multiplying. In fact digital calculations themselves require steady voltage to
maintain memory, and power fluctuations can be catastrophic for the device
Backlit screens, hard drive demands, and graphics needs are mounting the
pressure on the development of power sources. At the same time, the thermal
runaway risk must be managed which tends to create wasted resources within the
battery, and batteries that destroy themselves before they ignite.
The war rages for alternatives. The venture capitalists are betting big in a
number of areas. They are driven by the demand for laptops with dual processors
and eight-hour run times. They are driven by our consumer demands that we have
wireless devices on our hip that store and play music – 1000 songs at a time,
guide us over highways, and send attachments via email. Actually, the device
should be in your pocket and not on your hip unless you’re a nerd according to
insinuations by Kevin Sintumuang, associate editor for GQ.
Among the warring factions for battery supremacy are:
1) Lithium batteries with their own chip to manage power resources
Regardless of who wins this war, the riches will be great. And regardless of
who wins this war, it seems that re-design of electronic devices will be
required to allow for the new optimum power delivery system. That means it
won’t be overnight.
Now let’s take the battery war to another level beyond electronic devices
with a ‘what if’ scenario. What if battery technology advanced to the level
where a reliable, safe, and powerful field of such tiny units became the source
of power for our furnaces, air conditioners, and cars? Not just cars that look
like you’re driving a phone booth, but real cars – and SUVs. Wouldn’t that just
change the environment, both figuratively and literally?
Let’s just hope there is a winner in the battery war as opposed to
continuing stagnation. Let’s hope that the hunt that began in earnest with
Edison is rewarded with success. Let’s hope that new technologies, dependant on
battery capability, can continue to develop so we can sate our desire for
electronic nirvana. Otherwise we may be stuck in this backward time where
battery capability restricts our Columbus-like voyage of discovery of the
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