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Battery Progress Reality Check: Good & Bad News

We know that battery capability, which is primarily defined using energy density by volume and by weight, is a critical factor in determining what we can expect of the units they power. Pundits at all levels of technical knowledge from near-zero to quite advanced keep reminding us of this obvious fact, and then opine on what they think will or should happen next. In many cases, these writers have an agenda (of course, a common one is “send us more grant money and funding so we can finish the job”), so it's hard to separate facts from hopes and wishful thinking.

That's why I was impressed by a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, “Tech World Vexed by Slow Progress on Batteries,” which I thought was one of the best and clearest assessments of the present status of battery technology and advances I have seen. The article made two points:

  1. There have been significant advances in the last few years that have made many products practical, including smart phones and battery-powered tools. (The author cites specific examples.) Although each advance may have been modest in itself, they do add up to a genuine and substantial increase in performance metrics.
  2. The much-vaunted “breakthrough” that everyone wants, hopes for, or claims they are “this close” to, just isn't in sight. When you step back and look at the bigger picture, there's certainly been progress, but it has been in incremental layers, not major leaps. The breakthrough to allow practical batteries that are much, much lighter in weight, denser in capacity, and lower in cost (hopefully, all at the same time) is not just around the corner. It seems that we are bombarded with researchers claiming that they on the path for the breakthrough, but that hasn't materialized when you peel back the hype.

The supposed imminent “quantum leaps” (a very misused phrase) are really just modest advances of varying degrees, not game changers or “paradigm shifts,” to use another cliché. Further, translating even a modest prototype battery improvement into actual volume manufacturing and OEM adoption is a long-term undertaking — on the order of ten years or more. Regardless of the technology or chemistry you have, battery manufacturing is a very capital- , materials-, and production-intensive process.

There's another problem with supposed breakthroughs: You can only recognize them in retrospect, so you need the perspective of hindsight. It's like peak detection, in that you can only determine that you have had a peak after it has passed. Breakthroughs are very hard, if not impossible, to see as they approach or even as they happen, and it is even harder to see how they will really unfold. Consider these major breakthroughs in our industry:

  • The transistor (1947) was demonstrated as an analog amplifier. Its role as a digital-switching building block was not really foreseen.
  • The integrated circuit (1958) was an analog audio oscillator. The impact of large-scale integration for digital functions was not apparent.
  • The laser (1960) was called “a solution in search of problems to solve” by observers. We know how that situation turned out!

To read the rest of this article, visit EBN sister site EE Times.

43 comments on “Battery Progress Reality Check: Good & Bad News

  1. _hm
    October 29, 2014

    Battery may not be looked as green part. Progress in battery as related to real green technology is welcome. However, employing rare earth minerals and other minerals is not progress.

  2. t.alex
    October 29, 2014

    Battery is a temporary solution for “clean enviroment”. However we need a good way to recycle them otherwise its no better than gas/oil.

     

     

  3. Daniel
    October 30, 2014

    “We know that battery capability, which is primarily defined using energy density by volume and by weight, is a critical factor in determining what we can expect of the units they power. Pundits at all levels of technical knowledge from near-zero to quite advanced keep reminding us of this obvious fact, and then opine on what they think will or should happen next.”

    Bill, energy domain/sector is an evergreen topic. Eventhough we are able to generate green or renewable energy, storage is a major concern. Mainly we are depending batteries for storage and as of now storage capacities are limited and around 60-70% are the efficiency of storage batteries. So more storage per cells has to be the motto for R&D in storage devices.

  4. Daniel
    October 30, 2014

    “Battery is a temporary solution for “clean enviroment”. However we need a good way to recycle them otherwise its no better than gas/oil.”

    Alex, what's the alternate solution for storage?

  5. ITempire
    October 30, 2014

    Bill, you have touched a topic which unfortunately has not been touched much by the tech-writers on internet which I think is due to the reason that they consider this topic too minute in aspect when considering the role of technology in growth of industries. However, you can realize its important if your phone/laptop/tablet is not charged at a time when urgent contact through email or internet apps becomes game-changer.

  6. ITempire
    October 30, 2014

    t.alex, agreed. It needs to be recycled otherwise it also uses natural resources. However, considering the energy usage by other power-sources for e.g. oil, gas, and coal, batteries are much better.

  7. ITempire
    October 30, 2014

    Jacob

    “So more storage per cells has to be the motto for R&D in storage devices.”

    You have highlighted the core objective that should be setup by battery manufacturers and I am sure they realize that but it is true that results have not been very impressive when comparing them with other components of devices such as RAM, HDDs and processors.

  8. ITempire
    October 30, 2014

    Jacob, one more thing I'd like to highlight is that in 30% of the usage times, I am facing a low battery alert. Portable battery pack is a good cover but ideally it shouldn't be required. Primary battery should serve the purpose.

  9. prabhakar_deosthali
    October 30, 2014

    Basically the batteries are used in devices which are mobile   The cellphones, the vehicles, the laptops and finally the evolving EVs.

     

    In all these devices the main performance criterion are 1. weight 2. energy density 3. recharge time and 4. cost.

    The future enrgy packs ( not necessarily the conventional batteries using the electrochemical technique ) need to address these issues by some radical thinking in terms of material usage, energy conversion/reconversion and so on. 

  10. Ashu001
    October 30, 2014

    Alex,

    Have to agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments here.

    As long as we are using Batteries made of Materials like Lithium and Cadmium we need to very careful about how one uses these Devices and especially how we dispose them off.

    Recycling(especially as less Harmful to the Environment as possible) is super-critical here.

     

  11. Ashu001
    October 30, 2014

    Waqas,

    When one looks at it;Batteries are just a means to Store Energy and not a Source of Energy in and themselves-You will still need Coal,Oil,Gas,Hydro or in rare cases Solar /Geothermal/Wind/Biomass as Fuel to power the Machine in the first place and/or Charge the Battery.

    So if your Battery is not recyclable then its not really-really helpful here.

     

  12. Himanshugupta
    October 30, 2014

    I know that this may be cliche but a quantum leap in battery or power storage will basically solve a lot of energy crisis that we are going towards. Majorly, all the renewable energy if stored at cheap then we will have major advancement in these fields. I think we should already announce a future nobel prize for anyone who can crack an ideal battery puzzle.

  13. Taimoor Zubar
    October 30, 2014

    @Himanshugupta: I agree with you. The innovation in battery power will indeed solve a lot of problems that we face today. It may give a quantum leap to the industry as you mentioned. However, the only way that can happen is when the innovation is something bizarre and out of the world not just a mere improvement in battery technology.

  14. Taimoor Zubar
    October 30, 2014

    “The future enrgy packs ( not necessarily the conventional batteries using the electrochemical technique ) need to address these issues by some radical thinking in terms of material usage, energy conversion/reconversion and so on. “

    @prabhakar: The way I see it, the batteries these days need to be given external charging and there's no on-the-go charging capabilities to charge with the application at hand. For instance, we need more work on how the phones and tablets can be charged using the motion, heat, solar power etc that can be obtained while the device is being used instead of it being plugged in separately.

  15. Daniel
    October 31, 2014

    “You have highlighted the core objective that should be setup by battery manufacturers and I am sure they realize that but it is true that results have not been very impressive when comparing them with other components of devices such as RAM, HDDs and processors.”

    Waqas, am not sure how we can compare batteries with RAM, HDD, processor etc, but there are some improvements happened in alkaline storage and power bank technology. The same is not scaled to normal battery technologies.

  16. Daniel
    October 31, 2014

    “one more thing I'd like to highlight is that in 30% of the usage times, I am facing a low battery alert. Portable battery pack is a good cover but ideally it shouldn't be required. Primary battery should serve the purpose.”

    Waqas, the issue with Smartphone and tablets are, most of the back ground processor and apps consumes lots of power continuously without the user knowledge. If you are able to stop that back end process, you can save energy to an extent.

  17. Houngbo_Hospice
    October 31, 2014

    @tech4people 

    “Recycling(especially as less Harmful to the Environment as possible) is super-critical “

    Goog point.
    Recycling awareness should be promoted and enforced at corporate as well as individual levels. Also, using adequate evalation metrics to assess recycling programs will help gauge the efficiency of such programs.

  18. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    October 31, 2014

    I see some potential in solar charging, @HM.  However, considering the impact of the entire chain really is critical.

  19. Ashu001
    November 2, 2014

    Houngbo,

    Absolutely right!

    Especially for countries which are either isolated/Land-Locked or have not many Domestic Resources(like Japan) or are running out of Landfill Space(UK,most of the world today);Recycling is a Brilliant Option to get your Economy Back on track and very quickly!!!!

    Remember the case where the Chinese put in place all kinds of Restrictions on Rare Earth Exports from China(it was purely a competitive way to throttle the Competition in the Electronics Space last year).The biggest country to suffer from those Restrictions was Japan.

    Guess what they did?

    They went into their own Landfills and started re-segregating E-Waste to islolate all those Rare Earth Elements which their Electronics Industry desperately needs.Not just that;they also started research on Elements which can easily replace those Rare Earth Metals.

    This is the right & Smart way to deal with this situation.The more local and contained our Solutions are ;the Better for us.

  20. Ashu001
    November 2, 2014

    Hailey,

    The Whole Chain is super-critical to get Solar Going effectively today.

    All Stakeholders have to step up to the plate to deliver.

    Especially since today,Oil,Gas&Coal prices are falling;Automatically the Economic Incentive to use and Invest in Solar gets dimnished.

    But we should'nt use this temporary slump in prices of Oil &Gas to dissuade us from Going the Whole Hog on Solar(especially in Countries which are Net Importers of Oil today like US,UK,Australia,India,China,etc).

    Setting up an effective Solar Chain changes the whole Cost Benefit Sceanario sharply going ahead.

    Regards

    Ashish.

  21. FLYINGSCOT
    November 3, 2014

    I agree that battery technology is only an incremental curve.  In some respects the industry is going backwards due to the proliferation of counterfeit batteries too and I would say that the average perception of how a battery performs these days is actually worse than it was 10 years ago.  My old Nokia needed charged once per week but now my iphone needs juiced every day.  I know why this is but many people simpy say the battery is poor.

  22. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    November 4, 2014

    @Flyingscot, we are certainly expecting more and more of our technology. When I bought my first computer, an Apple Mac, I was given a choice of 10 or 20 MB of hard disk space. I remember thinking, what in the world would i do with 20MB of hard disk space? Today, I installed the latest version of Lync IM client and it demanded more than 10 times that amount of space for the one program.

  23. ITempire
    November 15, 2014

    tech4people, yes point taken. It is just a storage means and not generator of power. 

    I sometimes feel that battery manufacturers intentionally do not work on increasing the efficiency of batteries (as in increased number of hours of battery power) because this way they will generate sales of extra battery packs which people must carry with them. Just a thought.

  24. ITempire
    November 15, 2014

    Jacob

    Waqas, am not sure how we can compare batteries with RAM, HDD, processor etc, but there are some improvements happened in alkaline storage and power bank technology. “

    If we talk about all the components of devices/phones/laptops, there are some components that have exponentially grown like processing power and storage means i.e. HDDs but one component that is the power component, the batteries, have not been very impressively handled by the manufacturers. The comparative growth rate of batteries isn't up to the mark when compared to other components.

  25. ITempire
    November 15, 2014

    Jacob

    ” If you are able to stop that back end process, you can save energy to an extent.”

    Thanks for the tip. Will see in my devices as to what apps can be closed down so as to increase battery life.

  26. Daniel
    November 16, 2014

    “If we talk about all the components of devices/phones/laptops, there are some components that have exponentially grown like processing power and storage means i.e. HDDs but one component that is the power component, the batteries, have not been very impressively handled by the manufacturers. The comparative growth rate of batteries isn't up to the mark when compared to other components.”

    Waqas, but in devices all such grown components has to be supported by battery power. If processing power increases means its need battery power for supporting its performance. I mean if no power means it won't be able to perform. So the basic thing is power, which very much required for all componential performance. 

  27. Daniel
    November 16, 2014

    “Thanks for the tip. Will see in my devices as to what apps can be closed down so as to increase battery life.”

    Waqas, you can find it out that at – settings – app manager.

  28. Adeniji Kayode
    November 17, 2014

    @ t.alex, I agree with you on that. If care is not taken that may lead to another kind of environmental pollution. Recycling them into something else may be a solution.

  29. ITempire
    November 19, 2014

    Jacob, exactly my point. Everything depends on power that is battery and it has not been worked on like it should have been. Anyways I hope that industry realizes that and it will be a resolved issue within the coming few years.

  30. Daniel
    November 19, 2014

    “exactly my point. Everything depends on power that is battery and it has not been worked on like it should have been. Anyways I hope that industry realizes that and it will be a resolved issue within the coming few years.”

    Waqas, yes some research is happening in that direction too; for better battery life. Recent addition is 4000 mah power from Samsung. 

  31. Adeniji Kayode
    November 20, 2014

    @waqasaltaf, For me, I think there is a limit to how much power that can be put in a small size container as battery. Another factor is the quality of materials used and then the power consumption of the device too matters.

  32. Ashu001
    November 22, 2014

    Waqas,

    You raise an interesting point(of view) here.

    The explaination often given by the Industry for why Battery Tech lags behind other Technology like Processors for instance is that neither do we(as a Society ) pour enough R&D into that area and also the fact that as Batteries get smaller and smaller they constantly run up against elements of Thermodynamics which eventually cause big-big issues(like Exploding ipHones for one);if you simply keep shrinking everything.

    Where are the heat sinks and Heat Exits ?

    That's one reason why Battery Tech has'nt advanced at the pace we would like to see it.

    In a Battery Operated Car (which can be charged regularly by Regular DC) ;the Weight of the Battery is by far the Heaviest part of the car(like in the Tesla).

    I am not trying to accept their point of view blindly either.Why can't they use other Materials instead of Lithium Ion to get the job done?

    Again same story-Not enough research done.

     

  33. Ashu001
    November 22, 2014

    Adenji,

    True.

    The Materials(on which R&D is going on currently) and the Energy Convertors are the Two major roadblocks to shrinking battery size further.

    But Given the rapid rate and pace of Human Ingenuinty I won't be surprised if we crack that code as well very-very soon!

    It will happen,Count on it!

     

  34. Adeniji Kayode
    November 24, 2014

    @tech4people, I agree with you on that and also we should expect solar components too to become less bulky and more effective for wide range of applications

  35. Ashu001
    November 28, 2014

    Adenji,

    This is a most interesting topic.

    I was just today speaking with a couple of Charity Organizations who are striving to bring Electricity and the Internet to some of the most Poorest(and infrastructurally backward) parts of the world.

    They said something very interesting-Solar as it stands today has enormous potential to make Consumers(in those desolate parts of the world)-Energy Independent.

    Their needs are few ,hence just some Solar Panels spread out over their Farms or over their Homes are sufficent to provide them the Power they need today.

    Can you imagine,what will happen when Solar Components shrink further in size(thanks to R&D advancements)?

    The possibilities are endless!

  36. ITempire
    December 28, 2014

    Tech4people, I can understand the limitations that batteries have with respect to thermodynamics but almost all hardwares such as processors, motherboards, HDDs and RAMs are affected by it (Yes I agree that not to the extent of batteries) but they all have excelled more than batteries.

    But we said, lack of R&D is nonetheless the major issue.  

  37. ITempire
    December 28, 2014

    tech4people,

    “I was just today speaking with a couple of Charity Organizations who are striving to bring Electricity and the Internet to some of the most Poorest(and infrastructurally backward) parts of the world.”

    Great initiative.

    I think we have had enough when it comes to energy dependancy. Many groups in India and Pakistan are working towards independancy in that area but challenges are many. So are the opportunities. It is not easy to access those areas often because of the distance and road networks (usually road networks and electricity are both either present or absent together) therefore organized effort is a must.

  38. Ashu001
    December 31, 2014

    Waqas,

    That is correct.

    We need to move beyond Lithium and Li-Ion if we want to see more progress in this space today.

    Lithium Ion was revolutionary during its time.

    Now However,that Time is Up.

    Its time to look for other materials for the solution.

     

  39. Ashu001
    December 31, 2014

    Waqas,

    That's the best part of Off-Grid power[Solar and Wind].

    When you are not dependent on some distant powerstation and hundreds(if not thousands of miles) of Wire to send Electricity through to you ;you don't really care whether the Government or whatever Private Utility powers your area sends you power ontime.

    Believe me,I have tried it and its liberating beyond anything one has seen/experienced before.

    Even for Roads,Villages should pool their own Internal Funds(together with whatever Grant the Government provides them) and build their own Roads.

    Its time to stop blaming other people and start working towards a better life ourselves!

     

     

  40. ITempire
    December 31, 2014

    Tech4people, you are right. Material options need to be evaluated. Incremental changes will not do the job here. Revolutionary measures are necessary if the batteries are to adequately serve the fast transforming processors and storage drives.

  41. ITempire
    December 31, 2014

    Tech4people, you are right. People need to self organize and do things for development rather waiting for government. A lot of things can be self initiated and don't require incurring huge funds. But then everyone should contribute what's necessary else it won't materialize as intended.

  42. Ashu001
    January 10, 2015

    Waqas,

    I am glad you agree with my opinion here.

    In my personal opinion that [Broadly defined as the Libertarian way of life] is the only way to live life today.

    We can no longer depend on Bankrupt and Morally inept Governments to get the job done.

    Ordinary empowered & Highly Educated Individuals like you and me have to step up to the plate and deliver the results today.

    Please let me give you one example-I recently installed a Solar Panel on my Home's Roof.Because I have to travel a lot for work ;My Home is occupied only 6 months in a year.

    During the rest of the Year ;I am selling Solar Power back to the State Grid.

    When I was installing the Solar Panels(and the related infrastructure in my home);I had a lot of Naysayers saying why exactly am I spending so much cash upfront on it(when Powercuts are not really a major issue where I live);what I told them is simple-I am preparing for the future when Coal and Natural Gas(to power our Power plants) will cost much-much more than it does today.

    That time the savings that I will incur will be much-much higher than I am saving today(and ROI will be much better too).

    Plus,it feels really good personally that I am doing my little bit for the Environment and thereby disconnecting(atleast partially) from the Grid.

     

  43. Ashu001
    January 10, 2015

    Waqas,

    High Quality Alternatives exist even today(and we are seeing a lot of Research still needs to be done for sure and we also need to establish the related Supplier & Partner Ecosystems) but I don't for even an instant doubt that it will be done eventually.

     

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