Charge It
By Michael Grebb, Tue Jul 31 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Battery technologies haven't held the rapid development pace the rest of our devices have. But that'll change.

It's difficult to pick up a technology magazine or watch a techie news show without being assaulted by the ever-present, wireless hype machine. For those of us who cover the wireless industry (or whose fortunes lie in its success), the constant innovation to wireless handsets and personal digital assistants (PDAs) helps put food on the table.

But the reality is that millions have grudgingly endured a tradeoff between sleekness and functionality - even as we dream of Dick Tracy watches. Of course, modern patience is wearing thin. We've been spoiled by Moore's law. We want more features in ever-smaller devices. And whether talking about color displays, faster wireless connections, or simply more processing power and memory, one obstacle keeps ruining our bold march into a Star-Trek future: Battery life.

That's right. Battery technology is perhaps the weakest link in an amazing chain of smaller microchips, faster processors, better display screens, and other whiz-bang stuff. But although engineers have made incredible advances in creating smaller and longer lasting batteries in the last decade, they haven't come close to keeping up with 18-month doubling cycle of the computer world.

"Battery capacity only doubles about every 10 years," notes Cliff Raskind, an analyst at Strategy Analytics. "When you start to talk about clock cycles and color screens in these devices, you see incredible demands on batteries." Users, meanwhile, seem unwilling to compromise. "People don't want to give up battery life or their small phones," he says.

For wireless devices, new features are making it more difficult to produce long-lasting batteries that don't add unseemly bulk. After all, consumers used to nifty "clamshell" wireless phones and increasingly thin PDAs aren't exactly clamoring for bigger, heavier, bulkier devices. In fact, sales trends suggest that it's quite the opposite. Early attempts to merge all of the popular functionality of PDAs and cell phones have had mixed results.

An early attempt

For example, Qualcomm's pdQ Smartphone was one of the first to merge a cell phone with the Palm operating system and associated features. It was 6.2 inches (15.7 cm) x 2.6 inches (6.7 cm) x 1.4 inches (3.5 cm) and weighed about 8 ounces (229 grams). But with a hefty $799 price tag, the somewhat bulky device was clearly not for everyone. And despite glowing reviews of its features, battery life was another early complaint: "The pdQ is rated to last 32 to 35 hours with its lithium-ion battery, an estimate that we found generous." wrote ZDNet's Alan Kay in a March 2000 review of the device. "With infrequent use, our unit lasted barely 24 hours."

To be sure, Qualcomm has made vast improvements since those early days. Its new version of a Palm-enabled phone is smaller, lighter and sleeker. "The new pdQ is more slimmed down," says Raskind. "It's selling a lot better." But every time battery life improves, consumers and software makers seem to want more.

Take Sanyo's new SCP-5000 wireless phone, for example. Its color screen allows users can store digital photos so caller ID allows users to see the number and smiling face of the person calling them. With 2.5G and 3G services on the horizon, it's easy to imagine screens that will need to accommodate video telephony within the next decade. Decent quality would require color resolution similar to today's laptop computers. But with today's battery technology, the consumer might have to choose between constant recharging or carrying around a fairly bulky device.

None of this should suggest that the battery industry isn't working feverishly to keep up with the public's thirst for bells and whistles. Most of the rechargeable batteries used by wireless devices are either lithium-ion or nickel-metal hydride. Each have their advantages and disadvantages, but both require users to cope with inevitable tradeoffs. And even though engineers have made incredible strides in recent years, they have found that consumers and businesses are an insatiable bunch. "No matter what kind of energy you have in the battery, the end-user always wants more," says Al Harville, senior director of marketing at Ovonic Battery, a unit of Troy, Mich.-based Energy Conversion Devices.

Harville, who has spent 21 years in the battery biz, agrees that batteries are capable of just about anything when cost is no object. Of course, with the exception perhaps of the military, economics are a serious consideration when designing batteries. It makes no sense to create a tiny, super-powerful battery for wireless devices if it adds $1,000 to the cost.

At the same time, Harville notes that battery technology will continue to advance, albeit at a slower rate than computers. "We haven't reached the end of the technology," he says, noting that people forget how far batteries have come. For example, an Ovonic battery that produced 56 watt-hours per kilowatt hour in the mid-eighties can now output 100 watt-hours in the same package.

Fuel cartridges, anyone?

Harville and other battery experts agree that innovations will continue using current technology, but it's also fair to note that a new camp has formed around the idea that radical new technology is needed to feed the our appetites. Much futuristic buzz centers around "fuel cell" technology, which tackles the battery-life problem from a new angle.

A typical battery is a closed system in which electro-chemical reactions take place, requiring periodic recharging from an electrical source. Fuel cells batteries, however, convert an outside fuel such as alcohol, methanol, or ethanol into energy. So instead of plugging a wireless device into a wall socket, consumers could pick up small cartridges of fuel at the local convenience store and simply insert them into the device when the old fuel cell is empty. That way, a busy business traveler wouldn't have to wait until he or she got to an electrical outlet before recharging a wireless device. Just pop in a new fuel cartridge. Voila.

The only problem with fuel cells is that they have yet to prove themselves. "They're still laboratory curiosities," says Robert Hockaday, chief fuel cell scientist at Manhattan Scientifics, and inventor of the company's microfuel cell technology. "They have big potential that has yet to be realized. People are still nervous about it. It's going to take a big corporate partner to take it to the next level."

So far, no major player has come forward to take the risk. But Hockaday says the manufacturers of wireless devices may soon have no choice but to embrace new fuel cell technology to feed all of the fancy new features in their devices. He says fuel cell batteries can pack about three to five times the punch of lithium-ion or nickel-metal hydride batteries and theoretically could yield 10 to 30 times the capacity with further research and development.

Hockaday predicts that cartridges could cost as little as 50 cents each when mass produced, noting that a half-ounce cartridge of fuel might yield as much as two weeks of battery life (depending on the device and usage). "You could sell them by the six-pack or twelve-pack for a couple of dollars," he says. And what to do if you're on the redeye to Singapore and out of cartridges for your PDA? "In a pinch, you could use vodka," he only half jokes.

Of course, fuel cell technology isn't a panacea. It's still expensive and would require much testing - not to mention the obvious safety issues involved in carrying around little cartridges of flammable liquid everywhere you go. "Fuel cells heat up too," says Harville. Does that mean a cartridge could literally explode inside a device? Well, Harville doesn't go that far. "You said that, not me," he says. But the bottom line is that fuel cells are still an untested technology that even Hockaday admits may not hit mainstream markets until 2003 at the earliest.

Reducing consumption

In the mean time, battery performance improvements are coming from a few unlikely and seemingly unrelated sources. In fact, one reason that batteries seem to be getting smaller and doing more in recent years has to do with better software and processors. The "systems-on-a-chip" trend toward putting more system components directly on the microchip not only increases processing speed by shortening the distances electrons must travel, but it also saves power, thereby extending the life of existing batteries. Recent improvements, therefore, have been more the result of more efficient computer design than battery design changes.

"Battery technology is not catching up with what's going on in wireless devices," says Vijaykrishnan Narayanan, assistant professor of computer engineering at Penn State University. Narayanan and his colleagues have designed software called "SimplePower" to help software engineers figure out how much juice their applications require to run. That way, they can design less power-hungry components. (The diagnostic program is available at for free.)

Of course, the potential efficiencies of current processors are limited, especially as chip makers use smaller microns between transistors. "You start to get diminishing returns," notes Narayanan. Some camps, therefore, emphasize other components such as antennas, arguing that more efficient RF management can also save battery power. "As an antenna's function improves, battery life increases dramatically," says Jim Aberle, senior engineer at e-tenna, an vendor of antennas for wireless devices and systems. "If you dedicate all of your energies to improving the efficiency of the power amplifier without redesigning the antenna to do the same, you reach diminishing returns much sooner."

Wireless device makers hope that they are years away from diminishing returns on small, wireless devices that pack the robust features consumers want. And judging from the insatiable demand for better toys (and the willingness of companies to feed them), it seems unlikely that the innovations will slow down any time soon. Consumers, it would seem, will make sure of that.

Michael Grebb has previously written for The Industry Standard, Business 2.0, and eCompany. From Washington DC, he covers the impact of mobile technology on modern society.