Batteries drive me nuts. They waste countless hours of peoples time. Recharging, swapping, shopping, scavenging through draws etc. Not to mention dealing with the cheap ones that went rusty and exploded inside that torch you didn’t use for 12 months. Battery tech on the whole has certainly improved …but not radically. We’re still slave to the AA and AAA in many consumer products. I tend to follow this space because a disruptive change in battery technology or the ability for consumers to generate power on demand will literally transform the technology and consumer landscape. For example; we tend not to use all our phones features (especially those guzzling apps that drain our phones with GPS and WiFi) because we still need to make calls. A dead smartphone is something most of us will avoid like the plague. Solve this problem and we change the way we use our phones and the things we do with them.
The job of the battery is really three fold: Grab power, store it, release it in the right amount. The main issues are – how quickly and where it can be charged, how much power needed, how big it is, how long it lasts, how many times it can be used, and where it is. Environmental issues like safety and temperature also play a key role (many batteries don’t work well in very cold temperatures) as well as battery disposal (waste hazard). So there’s plenty to consider.
Within the next fifteen years the battery game is definitely set to change. If you are in the renewable energy game, the holy grail is “grid parity” where the amount of energy created by a person is equal to the amount they consume. The experts I know personally in the space believe that Grid Parity will be possible and viable by 2017-2023. This certainly applies to our homes, but also our personal space as we travel about. Now this whole industry is huge and the race is on to win it. A large portion of it is being driven from the battery tech that will power tomorrows electric car. Warren Buffet knows it and is investing heavily. Elon Musk’s Tesla has big ambitions. What happens in the car industry will certainly trickle back down in other form factors.
So what’s on the way?
Actually quite a lot. Much of what is coming is based on technology which allows increased efficiency – doing more, wasting less. New substances like Graphene will certainly revolutionise many things around us from solar power to electronics (read more about emerging tech on the way here). Our ability to mass manufacture substances at an almost atomic scale will play a huge role. There’s plenty of emerging tech in the space including the use of viruses in batteries (yes viruses). So here are the main spaces we will see change:
One of the big daily problems is the speed of charging our devices. There is a lot of hope here and some from surprising places like the teenager whose batteries recharge in 20 seconds (here). But it doesn’t stop there – here’s a phone battery from the University of Illinois that charges in one second. Expect to see big improvements commercially within 3 -5 years.
This is a tough one but there is promise. Betavoltaic batteries have long been talked about because they generate their own current and these are starting to appear. Here’s a betavoltaic battery that powers a chip for 20 years. Cornell University have a patent for a betavoltaic battery which will last for 50 years (here). There is a lot more research going on in this space as you can imagine. Likely 5-15 years before we see a significant change although watch out for the odd product that seems to break the rules.
User generated, harvested and wireless power.
Power harvesting is drawing power from what’s naturally available around us, or from a transmitted source. All frequencies around us contain energy (light, radio, microwave, heat, kinetic etc). So energy sources are abundant – we just need a way to tap into them efficiently.There are lots of innovative projects on kickstarter like The Strong Volt (solar) and the PowerPot/Practical Meter (thermal). There are various new forms of wireless power in development (here). On a small scale watch the video below to see how NFC can be used to power a speaker and LED without batteries – eg: great for toys.
As devices get smaller, batteries need to shrink too. Check out this tiny graphene based battery. (here) and this minute 3D printed battery (here) from Harvard University. This field is particularly important in medicine as you can see in this recent story on pacemakers (here).
More Power, more storage, more portable
Capacity and accessibility plays a big role. Many of us need to carry spare power and many companies are working on solutions. The web is full of emergency phone chargers and these are getting better continually. The Limefuel charger packs a punch at 24000mAh and then there’s the $199 Hydrogen fuel cell Upp here. There are many more like them. Here’s a great list of 62 different eco charging devices.
The never ending problem
As humans we tend to consume what we have to the max. If you put more lanes on a highway it fills up with cars. If you get a pay rise you spend more. Bigger hard drives, more files. So as we produce more energy won’t the things we need always require more? Just as soon as we are able to power our smartphone using personally generated energy another phone will come out that needs even more charge. Of course. But that’s just progress in action.
Who’s going to be disrupted the most?
One has to wonder whether the likes of P&G owned Duracell and Energizer will have their Kodak moment unless they jump the curve to something very new. They certainly have a lot to lose – these are big multi-billion dollar businesses but so was Kodak. The real issue for them is whether they are prepared to jump and in doing so risk cannibalizing their own market. Regardless, a time will some soon where consumers will happily generate their own power and move it to where and when they need it (eg wireless power directly pushed to small consumer devices generated from solar energy on owners the roof). I suspect there is little more than a 10-15 year window for traditional AA,AAA disposable battery companies to evolve. In the old world the big companies ate the small, but today the fast eat the slow. You can read an interesting interview with the President of Duracell, Stassi Anastassov on their future here and make up your own mind if you think they will stay relevant.