Most of us are running on empty. Since the mobile phone spawned a smartphone-first world, we’ve all been tending to the needs of battery.The daily or nightly charge of the smartphone is the most prevalent, but laptops, tablets, drones, wireless headphones, smartwatches and other wearable devices are becoming more common.
We are constantly recharging batteries, there are some attempts to create fast-charging batteries and, of course, a new generation of wireless charging devices, but they’re just about convenience.
With the coming era of the electric car and more advanced robotics, a need to swap to renewable energy, and an ever-increasing (and more mobile gadget-hungry) global population, humanity’s capability of storing energy is going to become critical.
Either we innovate and create new and more powerful battery technology, or we enter a period of stasis where a lack of mobile power strangles new technology. Luckily, innovations are incoming.
The need for portable power battery
Electrical power, whether portable or not, is one of the cornerstones of life, and one that we all take for granted. And we are the problem.
“The human race has been so successful at population growth that we now have to worry about sustainability,” says Upal Sengupta, Applications Manager, Battery Management Solutions at Texas Instruments.
“The electrical power and technology that helped fuel our growth will need to be used and generated in ways that minimize their impact on our planet. If not, it could literally be a global disaster.”
Sengupta thinks we need to concentrate first on conservation and efficiency, and secondly on alternative sources for power generation, like solar panels. The latter requires huge batteries to store the Sun’s energy, so we can use it at night, or at a time when it suits us.
Thirdly, he thinks that makers of electronic products should make power-conversion circuitry as efficiently as possible. However, there are other portable devices coming that will bring massive challenges to battery technology; the electric car – and the electric everything.
The electric car battery
Creating smartphones that last for two days instead of one won’t change the world, but the spread of the electric car will change the battery industry massively.
It’s a huge challenge, with an expected 20 million electric vehicles to be selling each year by 2030, each using a massive lithium-ion battery.
Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) thinks there will be 530 million electric vehicles by 2040, and that their electricity consumption will grow to 1,800 terawatt hours in 2040 – or 5% of global power demand – from just 6 terawatt hours in 2016.
The batteries needed by an electric car are really big. The 2016 Nissan Leaf has a 30kWh battery capable of going for 172km/107 miles, while the upcoming Tesla Model 3 will have a 50kWh or optional 75kWh battery, which can go for 355km/220 miles and 500km/310 miles respectively. Is that your road-range-anxiety gone?
“The battery pack is likely to remain the single most expensive component in EVs for some time to come, and the costs are broadly proportional to capacity,” says Robin Shaw, Chief Technology Officer for battery and energy storage supplier Hyperdrive Innovation.
He thinks the crucial point will come when the cost of a battery pack with enough range makes an electric car cheaper than an equivalent petrol or diesel car. “Having said that, I think the 400 mile range on a single charge is just around the corner, certainly within the next three years,” he adds.