May 2, 2007 11:50 AM PDT

A battery of questions about lithium ion

Eight hours of battery life--the stated industry goal for mainstream notebooks--feels like it has been eight years away for eight years.

PC components have grown more efficient, but then powerful graphics chips eat up the energy savings. Hard drives with moving parts are gradually handing over tasks to flash memory, but then faster Wi-Fi chips cause the battery meter to plunge.

After years of addressing the demand to lower power consumption in notebooks, it's time to point fingers at the supply: the lithium ion battery.

Manufacturers have been pushing lithium ion to its limits in recent years. The result of that push has included slightly longer battery charges--and safety disasters, such as the massive recall of Sony batteries in 2006.

"Some of the problems you see in the industry are (partly from) the need to over-engineer the system and having huge cost pressure," said Christina Lampe-Onnerud, founder and CEO of Boston Power, a battery developer.

Lithium ion technology was considered a fantastic solution when it was introduced commercially in the early 1990s. But there's no more room for improvement without pushing the envelope of cost and safety, Lampe-Onnerud said.

New materials
As a result, battery manufacturers have been experimenting with new materials, which could offer major breakthroughs--and lead to the unintended consequence of making life a little more difficult for notebook vendors.

For example, Panasonic, one of the three major battery vendors along with Sanyo and Sony, has developed a new battery cell that can hold more of a charge than the standard cell. (A standard lithium ion battery holds six cells.)

Panasonic doesn't discuss the materials being used to build that cell, but it is one of many companies investigating the use of metals other than lithium, such as nickel and manganese, on the cathode of the battery, said Andy Keaths, power sources enabling manager at Intel.

Some of the problems you see in the industry are (partly from) the need to overengineer the system and having huge cost pressure.
--Christina Lampe-Onnerud
CEO, Boston Power

Right now, Panasonic is using those new cells in batteries only for its own notebooks. But one day, it could license that technology to other manufacturers, which might also come up with their own new materials for both the cathode and anode of a battery. Intel is also looking at alternative metals and power sources over time, with investments in companies such as Zinc Matrix Power.

Those alternative metals present problems of their own, however, because they can require slightly different charging voltages and can add cost to the battery, said John Wozniak, who holds the title of distinguished technologist in Hewlett-Packard's notebook engineering group. It can also take awhile to introduce new, unproven materials.

"Right now, when I see road maps that say we're going to have this capacity at this time, I plan for something like six months after that," Wozniak said.

Working with what's there
Barry Huret, president of battery consulting firm Huret Associates, isn't quite so pessimistic about the future of lithium ion battery technology.

"They just have to get what they are using under the best control," he said.

In that vein, instead of focusing on extending battery life, Boston Power is working on designs that improve reliability, performance and safety of lithium ion technology. For example, the company wants to create a battery that doesn't lose its charge capacity over time, as opposed to current batteries that become more impotent as time passes.

This could be a big selling point for HP's enterprise customers, which currently buy three-year warranties on notebooks but are only entitled to one-year warranties on batteries, Wozniak said. If customers must live with small increases in battery life, perhaps they'll respond to other selling points when it comes to batteries.

"If I can't get all-day runtime, maybe I can do a fast charge at lunch," he said.

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9 comments

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No mention of Altair Nano's Battery
Altairnano (ALTI) has a battery that is superior to what is out ther now. It is currently being used in Pheonix Motorcars SUT and SUV.
Posted by stamutt (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Next revolution probably won't be batteries
I'm dubious as to the likelihood of a significantly improved battery any time soon, although fuel cells might work out at least for certain kinds of user.

What is likely to dramatically change the runtime of portable electronics in the near future is e-ink. Reflective displays that need charge only to change state should change everything; they're many times more efficient than LCD technology.

There are many practical problems with the technology today (Sony's ebook, for instance, takes ~1sec to change pages and flashes when it does so) but it's evolving fast and I would be surprised if the next few years don't see the technology become practical at least in certain applications.

Even if that doesn't happen it's likely we'll see other more-efficient display technologies make their way to laptops sooner rather than later, like alternative backlights or OLED.
Posted by jimafrost (31 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Huh?
Lithium Ion?
Apple shifted to Lithium Polymer long ago. Guess 'cos Dell didn't
do it, it doesn't count :-P
Posted by GGGlen (491 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Not a significant difference
The only differences between Lithium Polymer and Lithium Ion are that Lithium Polymer is lighter and can be manufactured in unusual shapes (i.e. not the typical rectangular blocks). In terms of capacity, they are virtually identical, which means it would be irrelevant to mention it in this article.
Posted by No_Man (77 comments )
Link Flag
Lithium Ion in the RC airplane
The RC folks have been struggling with Lithium Ion batteries for 2 years now, the problems arise when charging the batteries. Several garages burned down while charging these batteries! many planes have burned, no improvement in site. there are comercial charging "Vaults", fire proof cans to charge the batteries, even so you NEVER leave the batteries charging, & go eat dinner.
Richande
Posted by richande (10 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Here was my idea for a laptop
www.ethana4.blogspot.com

Main points: use the back of the screen for either heat dissipation or solar panels. Or, hey, half and half, maybe? And for goodness sake, give hard drives more optimal voltages. One high one for the motor, one low one for 130 or 90 nm electronics.
Posted by ethana2 (348 comments )
Reply Link Flag
RC Fires ??
"" The RC folks have been struggling with Lithium Ion batteries for 2 years now, the problems arise when charging the batteries. Several garages burned down while charging these batteries! many planes have burned, no improvement in site. there are comercial charging "Vaults", fire proof cans to charge the batteries, even so you NEVER leave the batteries charging, & go eat dinner.""

Where are they getting these batteries from? Are they trying to quick-charge a battery that isn't suppose to be quick charged?

Why would the RC guys have fires with the exact same technology that is used by notebooks that have had only the Sony issue?
Posted by regulator1956 (577 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Maybe a missing piece of technology?
In pretty much every commercially available consumer electronics Li-ion battery pack there is protection circuitry to keep the pack from being overcharged, charged too fast or drained too fast (most also have protection from being overdrained, but that isn't a safety issue.)
Maybe some RC packs (especially if they're homebrew) don't have this circuitry. Most of the stories of exploding cell phone batteries have been due to generic batteries where this protection is either missing or ineffective.
Posted by skrubol (181 comments )
Link Flag
RC Fires Clarified
The problems occuring with rc batteries are due to physical damage to Li-Po batteries and not the standard Lithium batteries used in 99% of electronic devices and laptops. When Li-Po batteries have been dropped or exposed to too much heat they are very likely to catch fire whether or not they have an electronic overcharging circuit.
Posted by amarctaylor (1 comment )
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