What’s going on with Batteries?

We rely on batteries all over the place. Powering our sump pumps should we have a flood related power outage, driving our EV’s, powering our cell phones and laptops, allowing for graceful power-down of our servers in the data center, handling our hearing aids, etc… They’ve become not only ubiquitous, but critical to the function in our daily life. And, there’s the photo, of Elon Musk’s Tesla Battery. What would we do without them? How do we handle it when they fail?

Since the year 1800, when Volta created the first voltaic pile cell, using Copper and Zinc to retain and then transmit charge, we’ve been trying to improve on the concept. Early batteries held very low and very inconsistent charges, their unreliability made for a level of built in problems. Some caught fire when there was a breach in the barrier between the positive and negative charged sides. The power from a battery cell is created as the negatively charged ions interact, but some means with the positively charged ones. But that must be a controlled reaction.

As time has marched on, and technology has gotten better, our abilities to ensure more consistency has grown… Some of the problems have remained, of course. I’m sure you’ve already made the connection with the Samsung phones that were catching fire. While, it’s unsure what the root cause of these fires actually was, it does seem that the same issue, that of the crossing of the positive and negative barriers may in fact have been the cause.

While it does seem that we have a controlled capacity (no pun intended) to ensure batteries deliver consistent power up until the time that they are drained completely, and of course newer chemical choices, like Lithium Ion, drain too quickly, recharge too slowly, and lose their functionality over prolonged time. Eventually losing their top end in recharge, and their full cycle from fully charged to fully drained becomes far lessened. They just wear out.

Now that we rely on batteries in so many different things, from our vehicles, to our cell phones, to medical devices, and even as a collector for things like solar power, we find that the need for consistency, smaller sizes, longer durations, and greater capacities, not to mention safety, have become mission critical. Imagine needing a defibrillator, only to find that it didn’t deliver the shock required, or none at all. That’s a small example of the kinds of problems that batteries should be able to fix. What if you were driving your Tesla, and the entire undercarriage (where the batteries are stored) were to catch fire. Seem to me to be far less than ideal.

Well, what progress has been made? Recharging has become more consistent, and the ceiling on the cells has become more reliable. Circuitry is built in to cell phones today wherein overcharging cannot happen any longer. But still, the lifecycle of particularly cell phones, which are tied most specifically to the battery functionality, has experienced no massive jump in performance, duration, and durability in recent years. Does this mean that we have reached a peak in capabilities? Does it mean that, as we’ve found that the biggest reason that we replace our phones is because the battery hasn’t got the flexibility that we require? Back in the day when we had what are now known as “Feature Phones” our batteries lasted for days. Today, as we use our smart phones for everything from social media, to texting, taking pictures, listening to podcasts, and sometimes, GPS, even blogging on them, our batteries last nowhere near enough to endure our use. We need to charge them continuously. It’s never enough.

So what’s the deal? When will be the next breakthrough in battery technology? I know it’s being worked on all over the landscape, but I have yet to see real results. I do know that the built in obsolescence of the battery that declines in function over time is the biggest reason that we continue to replace our phones, and that is a big driving factor in why the cell phone, and other industries seem to lack the motivation to improve batteries. But, as the industry recognizes that a huge reason we choose the devices we choose is the life of a given full charge. If our smart watch, our cell phone, our laptop were to last an entire week, under normal use, wouldn’t we choose that as the device we’d want? Regardless of Mac versus PC, iPhone versus Android, etc., the battery would be the reason I’d choose that piece of hardware over the other.

I truly wish that these technologies would improve more rapidly. I want to charge more quickly, have the charge last longer, and have the battery life be longer. How about you?

 

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