Batteries not required?

By Dennis Draeger

Energy storage will always be necessary, but research is leading toward a future without the need for bulky batteries that hold back miniaturization and limit functions. The greater a device’s capabilities and features, the less a battery can maintain a charge, but several technologies will converge to relieve this concern and eventually lead to a future without batteries.

What is changing?

Battery technology has improved over the years, but it has only progressed linearly while electronic devices have advanced exponentially. Over the next five years, conventional lithium ion batteries are expected to evolve at an accelerated rate. By simply replacing graphite with silicon in lithium ion batteries, researchers have increased the batteries’ ability to store a charge by 63% while making the battery 40% smaller.

However, using different materials and architectures, other technologies such as supercapacitors could drive energy storage density and performance even further. One technology that will more effectively liberate miniaturization from the battery is by storing energy in the architecture of a device. Researchers have covered conductor wires, which are required in electronic devices anyway, with supercapacitors which then act as the battery. Other researchers have developed ways to store supercapacitors in flexible fiber that could be part of the framework of a device or even woven into clothing. Either of these two methods would relieve the need for a battery, but they would not significantly improve the energy performance.

Alternate forms of electronics such as spintronics and straintronics will make devices much more energy efficient, and these devices could be charged more adequately by wearable generators such as boots that generate a charge from the pressure of each step taken, solar panels worn on backpacks, and other forms of harvesting energy from the environment and kinetic energy. See also NuTronics and Personal power ups.

Researchers are also working to vastly reduce charging times of electronics. Phones have been shown to charge in 10 minutes and even as little as 30 seconds. Any charging time under 10 minutes would relieve the need for consumers to charge devices on a daily basis if such chargers can be supplied as readily as public Wi-Fi—doubly so if the technology is wireless. Wireless chargers are already on the market, but the technology is preparing to grow. Currently, the chargers still require contact even if they do not need a cable or plug directly to the device. However, researchers in the lab have extended wireless charging across several feet and even relayed the charge farther.

Implications

Although energy storage will always be necessary, future electronics may never demand overnight charging while also requiring less energy storage. Instead, the devices could become so efficient that the advancing battery technologies could be integrated into the device without having to make room for a bulky battery. And they could be charged while walking and while inside a building where rapid wireless chargers are enabled. Therefore, less energy could be stored even as devices demand more energy. Electronics for automobiles, wearables, and space technology would therefore become smaller, lighter, and more commercially viable.

Wireless chargers could become as much in demand as Wi-Fi, and organizations of all types may need to think about how to launch such services. Wearable biometric authentication devices – as discussed in our latest report, Wearing IT: Trends expanding the wearable web – could boost the security of personal identification. If brick and mortar locations charged such devices with rapid wireless chargers, customers could make mobile payments (or prove their identities for other purposes) conveniently and easily without ever having to charge their wearable devices at home. Mobile payments would be more secure and therefore corporations could justify the expense of offering free wireless charging. Other organizations would also benefit from the improved security afforded by biometrics over ID cards as well as the further advantages offered by other types of wearables.

These technologies will make any electronic devices more convenient and efficient to operate. Aerial drones might be able to recharge by periodically flying over a line of wireless chargers thereby remaining in the air. Likewise, long distance driving would be more practical for electric vehicles if they can drive farther and faster while recharging in the time required for a meal.

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