The Thirst for Power: Is Electric Liberation any Closer?

Nov 19, 2015

Humans have always had a thirst for power – while political and economic supremacy is still a goal for some, most of us are happy just getting enough juice just to keep our gadgets running. You’ve probably seen a version of Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ circling the web – with basic human wants such as safety, shelter and self-esteem joined by a scribbled WiFi and Power. Our desire is to be mobile and always connected.

While data connectivity is becoming a non-issue in many developed economies (rural areas withstanding), access to power has become a more pressing concern. Smartphones are getting more powerful, and we’re using them to access more applications than ever before. But although chipsets and mobile operating systems are becoming more efficient, most of us still struggle to get through a day without a nervous look at the power gauge, or a frantic search for a power outlet. Simply, battery life is the biggest inhibitor to us developing a truly mobile economy. There hasn’t been the necessary step-change in battery performance to keep up with the growing power demands of devices. We haven’t seen a ‘Moore’s Law’ type increase in battery performance over the past decade or more.

Companies from across the Consumer Electronics and Automotive industries and beyond are looking for a step-change and are investing millions to uncover the technology breakthrough that will power the next phase of mobility. Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries remain the industry standard for consumer electronics and smartphones. A major part of the challenge has been the limitation of battery chemistry – producing cells that can store energy safely, reliably and for multiple uses. Broadly, there have been three major approaches to solving the power problem:

  • Deploy higher capacity Lithium-ion batteries – many smartphone vendors (notably Sony, Samsung, Huawei and OnePlus) have launched devices with >3,000 mAH batteries to power their larger-screen devices. There is, of course, a balancing act between capacity and size – and larger screened devices typically need more power, with HD/4K resolution screens being a huge drain. 
  • Enable faster charging – if battery capacity can’t cope with the increasing demands, at least make charging faster. Huawei is the latest vendor to announce progress in this regard, with a lab demo showing charging times that are 10 times faster than standard. The November demo showed a 3,000 mAH battery being charged to 48% capacity in just 5 minutes, and a smaller 600 mAH version hitting 68% charge in 2 minutes. Huawei isn’t the only company focussing on this area: Qualcomm’s Quick Charge solution is able to fully charge a large smartphone battery in 30 minutes while StoreDot (an Israeli start-up) has demoed 30 seconds charging on a standard Samsung Galaxy S4 battery. StoreDot expects to launch in 2016, with £20 chargers being mooted – if commercially viable and safe, this could prove a watershed moment.
  • Deliver more flexible charging – the nirvana for smartphone charging is removing the need for cables. Alcatel has shown a transparent solar panel that sits over a device’s screen, which could enable charging via either sunlight or artificial light. Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated development is the wireless solution from uBeam. While wireless charging mats are becoming widely available, they still required close proximity. uBeam is developing a more elegant and flexible solution that uses ultrasound transduction (sound waves above the range of human – and most animal – hearing). The company’s first product is due to launch in 2016 – a smartphone case, which will receive signals ultrasound signals and convert them back to electrical energy. uBeam has already attracted many notable investors, and will doubtless become an acquisition target from the major smartphone vendors should its proof of concept turn into a viable commercial product. 

The combination of these approaches could well deliver a compelling solution to the power issue. uBeam’s wireless offering is arguably the biggest potential game changer, but the company is yet to show a full working prototype or provide detailed technical specifications. Major question marks remain, including:

  • How safe is ultrasound power delivery? uBeam has gone to great lengths to answer this concern and is convinced that there are no health-related concerns with the technology. It will need to provide further independent research to allay concerns before its solutions can be broadly deployed.
  • How much energy can it deliver? Ultrasound power delivers a direct line of sight, and is limited to around 15 feet (5 metres) – any object (even clothing) will block the signal. Once the signal makes it through, will the resultant energy transfer be enough to charge a smartphone battery enough to make the costs worthwhile?
  • Is the solution commercially viable? uBeam has not announced price points yet, but given the need for line of sight there will be a requirement for many transmitters – perhaps even several devices in each room given the range constraints.

uBeam is currently focussed on a commercial launch in 2016. Also to deliver a reliable and financially viable product, it will doubtless be focussing on ensuring concerns are allayed. 

What next?

Lithium-ion batteries seem set to remain the industry standard for the foreseeable future. Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, thinks so. Tesla is investing $5bn in a huge Gigafactory in Nevada, which aims to significantly improve economies of scale. The company also tracks global battery developments and is convinced that there is no breakthrough technology on the near horizon that will prove to be a true game changer. 

There are, of course, many initiatives taking place that will be hoping to prove Tesla wrong. Lithium-Air, Aluminium-Air, Aluminium Graphite and Solid State batteries are all potential usurpers of the Li-Ion crown. Aluminium Air, developed by Fuji Pigment, is a technology that promises the seemingly impossible – an electric vehicle battery that has 40 times the capacity of Li-ion, which charges with just water. It is planning for a 2016 release – watch this space.

 


Adrian Drozd

Adrian Drozd is Research Director for Frost & Sullivan’s European ICT practice. He manages a team of analysts that focus on monitoring and analyzing emerging trends, technologies and market behavior across the ICT sector; the team’s coverage spans a broad range of areas, including UC&C, Mobile, Security and Cloud. In addition, Adrian acts as global programme manager for Frost & Sullivan’s Connected Industries programme – a research stream that assesses ICT opportunities across vertical markets.


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