While smartphones, smarthomes and even smart wearables are growing ever more advanced, they’re still limited by power. The battery hasn’t advanced in decades. But we’re on the verge of a power revolution.
Big technology companies, and now car companies that are making electric vehicles, are all too aware of the limitations of current lithium-ion batteries. While chips and operating systems are becoming more efficient to save power we’re still only look at a day or two of use on a smartphone before having to recharge. That’s why universities are getting involved.
We’ve seen a plethora of battery discoveries coming out of universities all over the world. Tech companies and car manufacturers are pumping money into battery development. And with races like Formula E starting the pressure to improve that technology is only going to get greater.
But while we’ve been writing about these developments for years there’s still nothing in our phones. This is because everyone is waiting for the perfect replacement before making the jump. That and commitments to current batteries thanks to manufacturing technique that cost a lot to change and existing deals for minerals being hard to break.
Next year is starting to shape up as the year batteries change. We’ve collected all the best battery discoveries that could be with us soon. From over the air charging to superfast 30-second re-charging, you could be seeing this tech in your gadgets sooner than you think.
Alfa battery lasts 14 days and runs on water
A breakthrough in aluminium-air batteries means that in 2015 we will see the release of the Alfa battery that has 40 times the capacity of lithium-ion.
This battery will be able to recharge by simply being topped up with water, be it salty or normal. It should last a hefty 14 days, according to its creators Fuji Pigment and will be out later this year.
We’d expect to see these batteries appear in cars first – imagine a fuelling station being anywhere with a water tap. Hopefully mobiles will be next in line.
While the aluminium-air battery has a whopping 8,100W/kg capacity and lithium-ion has 120-200Wh/kg it’s still lithium-air that comes out on top with 11,400Wh/kg – although when this will be available isn’t clear.
Using the power of friction a device has been created that can harness electricity from a person’s skin. The result is enough power, from a finger tap on skin, to power 12 LED bulbs. The future could mean there are no need for batteries in wearables or smart clothes.
So how does it work? An electrode is used to harvest the current, so a 50nm-thick gold film is used. The gold film sits below a silicone rubber layer composed of thousands of tiny pillars that help create more surface area for skin contact, which creates more friction. Since the skin is a one of the triboelectric layers it means the device can be small.
Scientists have already shown off a wearable powered by the device. Next gadgets to use it? Hopefully everything.
Foldable battery is paper-like but tough
The Jenax J.Flex battery has been developed to make bendable gadgets possible. The paper-like battery can fold and is waterproof meaning it can be made in clothing or wearables.
Imagine a battery built into the strap of a smartwatch, finally battery life on wearables won’t be such an issue while allowing the size of the devices to be shrunk down.
Another possible development from this advancement would be foldable tablets that you could fit into your pocket just like a phone. Then when you want a big screen view simply unfold the tablet and you’re all set for viewing.
The battery has already been created and has even been safety tested, including being folded over 200,000 times without losing performance.
uBeam over the air charging
uBeam uses ultrasound to transmit electricity. Power is turned into these sound waves to be transmitted and then converted back to power on reaching the device.
The uBeam concept was stumbled upon by 25-year-old astrobiology graduate Meredith Perry. She started the company that will make it possible to charge gadgets over the air using a 5mm thick plate. These transmitters can be attached to walls, or made into decorative art, to beam power to smartphones and laptops for example. The gadgets just need a thin receiver to be added in order to receive the charge.
Expect to see uBeam as a viable upgrade to your gadgets this year or early next.
Water dew powered batteries
This one is still in the early stages but MIT scientists have found a way to harvest power from water dew.
The device uses interleaved flat metal plates to produce power from the water dew in the air. Initial tests have produced small amounts of power, at 15 picowatts, or trillionths of a watt. But this can be tuned easily, says postdoc Nenad Milijkovic heading the project, to produce at least 1 microwatt.
While this small amount of power isn’t going to replace your charger, or keep it powered all day, it will be useful in more remote locations where no other power source is available and time isn’t too much of an issue. A charger the size of a coolbox lid should be able to fully charge a phone in 12 hours.
StoreDot charges mobiles in 30 seconds
The StoreDot charger, which works with current smartphones, was developed by StoreDot, a start-up born from the nanotechnology department at Tel Aviv University. The demo was made using a Samsung Galaxy S4 with a standard battery.
The superfast charging time was achieved using technology StoreDot has been developing. This includes biological semiconductors made from naturally occurring organic compounds known as peptides – short chains of amino acids – which are the building blocks of proteins. Similar to those used by body builders to grow bigger faster.
StoreDot also plans to release a charger capable of replenishing an electric car to full in just three minutes.
StoreDot will cost about £20 to make and should arrive in 2017.
Transparent solar charger
Alcatel has demoed a mobile phone with a transparent solar panel over the screen that would let users charge their phone by simply placing it in the sun.
Although it’s not likely to be commercially available until 2015, the company hopes that it will go some way to solving the daily issues of never having enough battery power.The phone will work with direct sunlight as well as standard lights, in the same way regular solar panels.
Revealed at CES 2015 the Energous WattUp is a router-like device that also uses radio waves to transmit but rather than data it dishes out power. A small adapter chip on the receiver device will allow it to harvest the energy from over the air at up to 20-feet away.
The catch? This won’t be available until 2016. But that could be a good thing as it gives gadget manufacturers time to include the charging chips in phones and the like so you don’t need to add that on.
Shawn West’s 26-second charge batteries
Normal batteries use chemicals alone to hold charge in a battery, but Shawn West’s battery uses lithium-ion capacitors to store electrical energy. Previously these didn’t work so well as they dissipated too quickly. He’s managed to overcome that issue.
The battery is able to stay charged and continue holding that charge over long periods of time. So if you were to dig it out of a drawer it would be good as new and ready to go. And then to recharge it you only need plug it in for 26-seconds and it’s full again.
The project has broken its Kickstarter goal and should get made meaning you can own these very soon. Finger crossed it makes it to mobiles soon after.
Aluminium-air battery gives 1,100 mile drive on a charge
A car has been tested that managed to drive 1,100 miles on a charge. The secret to this super range is a type of battery technology called aluminium-air. This uses oxygen naturally occurring in the air to fill its cathode. This makes it far lighter than liquid filled lithium-ion batteries to give car a far greater range.
Aluminium-air batteries drain turning the metal into aluminium hydroxide which can then be recycled to make new batteries. That will mean swapping out batteries every few months. But since it’s so much lighter and cheaper than current efforts it should offer huge mileage and be affordable.
With the car industry throwing money at battery developments it might not be long before we see this tech under our bonnets.
Urine powered batteries
The Bill Gates Foundation is funding further research by Bristol Robotic Laboratory who discovered batteries that can be powered by urine. It’s efficient enough to charge a smartphone which the scientists have already shown off. But how does it work?
Using a Microbial Fuel Cell micro-organisms take the urine, break it down and output electricity – to put it simply. On a scale large enough to charge a smartphone there are several cells into which the urine is passed via tubes. The unit creates electricity and also expels a broken down version of the waste making it safer to dispose of.
With Bill Gates working on re-inventing the toilet we’re expecting the porcelain throne to become a source of power in the home soon.
Researchers in the UK have built a phone that is able to charge using ambient sound in the atmosphere around it.
The smartphone was built using a principle called the piezoelectric effect. Nanogenerators were created that harvest ambient noise and turn that into electric current. Effectively the phone can be powered from waste noise found around us all the time.
Impressively the nanorods respond to the human voice meaning that those chatty mobile users out there could actually be powering the phone as they talk. Maybe this will cause a resurgence in phone calls over messaging.
Tag Heuer Meridiist Infinite solar charged phone
Tag Heuer has announced a new version of its Meridiist luxury phone that uses solar to power the device.
Wysips Crystal is a transparent photovoltaic component placed between the screen’s and the LCD screen. It is invisible to the naked eye but the thin layer of cells charge automatically when exposed to light from the sun or artificial. They then power the battery.
Tag Heuer is yet to reveal the price of the self-charging device, but considering that the current Meridiist costs 3,900 euros (£3,221) you can expect to pay a fair bit more than that for one.
Twenty times faster charge, Ryden dual carbon battery
Power Japan Plus has already announced this new battery technology called Ryden dual carbon. Not only will it last longer and charge faster than lithium but it can be made using the same factories where lithium batteries are built.
The batteries use carbon materials which mean they are more sustainable and environmentally friendly than current alternatives. It also means the batteries will charge twenty times faster than lithium ion. They will also be hardier with the ability to last 3,000 charge cycles, plus they are safer with lower chance of fire or explosion.
Power Japan Plus has said it will begin producing 18,650 Ryden cells later this year. Hopefully we’ll start seeing these appear in mobile devices soon.
Organic battery, 97 per cent cheaper to make
One possible future of power could be in organic batteries if a recent MIT discovery makes it to production. Scientists have created an organic flow battery that costs only $27 per kilowatt-hour compared to metal batteries at $700 per killowatt-hour – nearly a 97 per cent saving.
Using quinone molecules, that are almost identical to those found in rhubarb, a battery was made that is not only as efficient as metal but that could also be made on a huge scale.
Sand battery gives three times more battery life
This alternative type of lithium-ion battery that uses sand to achieve three times better performance than current efforts.
The battery is still lithium-ion like that found in your smartphone, but it uses sand instead of graphite in the anodes. This means it’s not only three times better performing but it’s also low cost, non toxic and environmentally friendly.
Now for the science part. Scientists, at the University of California Riverside, have been focused on nano silicon for a while but it’s been degrading too quickly and is tough to produce in large quantities. By using sand it can be purified, powdered then ground with salt and magnesium before being heated to remove oxygen resulting in pure silicon. This is porous and three-dimensional which helps in performance and, potentially, the life-span of the batteries.
Scientists in Japan are working on new types of batteries that don’t need lithium like your smartphone battery. These new batteries will use sodium, one of the most common materials on the planet rather than rare lithium – and they’ll be up to seven times more efficient than conventional batteries.
Research into sodium-ion batteries has been going on since the eighties in an attempt to find a cheaper alternative to lithium. By using salt, the sixth most common element on the planet, batteries can be made for cheaper and we won’t need to worry about lithium running out. With battery-powered cars on the increase it’s only a matter of time before lithium becomes too rare and expensive.
Commercialising the batteries is expected to begin for smartphones, cars and more in the next five to 10 years.
Upp hydrogen fuel cell charger
The Upp hydrogen fuel cell portable charger will be on sale in the coming months. It uses hydrogen to power your phone keeping you off the gird and remaining environmentally friendly.
One hydrogen cell will provide five full charges of a mobile phone (25Wh capacity per cell). And the only by-product produced is water vapour. A USB type A socket means it will charge most USB devices with a 5V, 5W, 1000mA output.
NTU fast charging battery
Scientists at Nanyang Technology University have created a battery that fast charges to 70 per cent in 2 minutes and has a life 10 times longer than current lithium-ion batteries.
The NTU battery should last for 10,000 charges according to its creators.
The technology is currently being licenced by an unnamed company for production. While we’d love to see this in our phones soon the lead professor refers to electric cars when talking about the battery. “Electric cars will be able to increase their range dramatically, with just five minutes of charging, which is on par with the time needed to pump petrol for current cars,” said Professsor Chen. The longer battery life makes sense for those buying an electric car.
The 10,000-cycle battery should cut down battery replacement in cars and equate to a 15-minute charge for the entire car.
Nanobatteries are 80,000 times smaller than a human hair and can offer three times the capacity of current efforts while charging in just 12 minutes and working for thousands of cycles.
The nanobattery breakthrough was made by creating tiny “nanopores” that act like lots of little batteries which, in a honeycomb structure, make a full battery.
The research was published by scientists at the university of Maryland who said: “We were blown away by the performance.” They attributed the enhanced performance to the short distances the electricity needs to travel, making the batteries far more efficient.