Efforts to build a better battery

The next breakthrough smartphone, or maybe the one after that, might not have a traditional battery as its sole source of power.

Instead, it could pull energy from the air or power itself through television, cellular or Wi-Fi signals. Engineers at Apple even tried for many years to build a smarter battery by adding solar charging to iPhones and iPods, a former Apple executive said. And they have continued to experiment with solar charging, two people who work at the company said. Batteries, long the poor cousin to computer chips in research-obsessed Silicon Valley, are now the rage.

As tech companies push their businesses into making wearable devices like fitness bands, eyeglasses and smart watches, the limitations of battery technology have become the biggest obstacle to sales and greater profits. Consumers are unlikely to embrace a wristwatch computer like the one being worked on by Apple, or Google’s smart glasses, if they work only a few hours between charges and must be removed to be plugged in. So the race is on - both to find alternatives to the traditional battery and to discover ways to make battery power last longer.

Consumers are going to say, “Give me a better battery because it doesn’t last long enough,” said Mujeeb Ijaz, chief technology officer at A123 Systems, a company that makes batteries for electric cars and invests in startups that are developing new battery technologies. “That need wasn’t there five years ago,” he continued. “Now it’s a matter of the market and the developers coming together and saying, what is the need and how many R&D dollars do we put in?”

Although computer chips have doubled in speed every few years, and digital displays have become significantly brighter and sharper, battery technology is largely stuck in the 20th century.

Device makers have relied on incremental improvements to battery power, now usually supplied by a decades-old lithium-ion concoction, in combination with more energy-efficient chips and screens. The problem, in part, is that it is hard to ensure the safety of many new power technologies. A faulty battery could potentially turn into a miniature bomb. So the products require exhaustive testing by regulators before hitting store shelves. Even if a new power system is approved, it often requires adoption by reputable brands like Apple, Samsung or Microsoft before everyday consumers start to trust it.

Fool’s errand

Some in Silicon Valley, like Tony Fadell, the former Apple vice president who led iPod and iPhone development, think it is smarter to focus on improving batteries and other components by taking small steps, rather than trying to reinvent the battery itself.
“Hoping and betting on new battery technology to me is a fool’s errand,” said Fadell, who is now the chief executive of Nest, which makes household technology and was bought by Google last month. “Don’t wait for the battery technology to get there because it’s incredibly slow to move.” Over the past few years, Apple has hired engineers with expertise in power technology and battery design from companies like Tesla, Toyota and A123 Systems. Last year, Apple acquired Passif Semiconductor, a startup that developed low-energy communication chips.

For its wristwatch, Apple has been testing a method to charge the battery wirelessly with magnetic induction, according to a person briefed on the product. A similar technology is already used in  some Nokia smartphones - when a phone is placed on a charging plate, an electrical current creates a magnetic field, which creates voltage that powers the phone.

Apple has also experimented with new power-charging methods for a potential smartwatch, people close to the efforts said, though such experiments are years from becoming a reality. The watch is expected to have a curved glass screen, and one idea is to add a solar-charging layer to that screen, which would give power to the device in daylight.

Google also has been looking at new battery technologies, trying to figure out ways to extend the life of smartphones. “People do not want to have to go run and find a charger at 3 p.m. every day,” said Mark Randall, senior vice president for supply chain and operations at Motorola, which Google announced last week it would sell to Lenovo.

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