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 looking 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 adding 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 techniques 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 super-fast 30-second re-charging, you could be seeing this tech in your gadgets sooner than you think.
Lithium-air breathing batteries
Lithium-air means using oxygen as the oxidiser, rather than a material. The result is batteries that can be a fifth of the price and a fifth as light as lithium-ion, plus they could make phones and cars last five times longer.
Bioo plant charger
The Bioo is a plant pot that harnesses the power of photosynthesis to charge your device, be it a tablet or phone. This already exists and can be bought now.
Bioo offers two to three charges per day at 3.5V and 0.5A via a USB port that’s cleverly disguised as a rock. The pot uses organic materials that react with the water and organic matter from the plant’s photosynthesising. This creates a reaction that generates enough power to charge gadgets.
This is just the start, imagine entire forests harnessed in this way. Not only could cities be powered with 100 per cent green energy but there could be yet another reason to protect plants and trees.
Gold nanowire batteries
Great minds over at the University of California Irvine have cracked nanowire batteries that can withstand plenty of recharging. The result could be future batteries that don’t die.
Nanowires, a thousand times thinner than a human hair, pose a great possibility for future batteries. But they’ve always broken down when recharging. This discovery uses gold nanowires in a gel electrolyte to avoid that. In fact these batteries were tested recharging over 200,000 times in three months and showed no degradation at all.
This could be ideal for future electric cars, spacecraft and phones that will never need new batteries.
Scientists have discovered a way to harness magnesium for batteries. This means smaller, more densely packed units that won’t need shielding. In the long run that should mean cheaper batteries, smaller devices and less reliance on lithium-ion. Just don’t expect to see these appear soon as they’re still in the developmental stages.
Solid state lithium-ion
Solid state batteries traditionally offer stability but at the cost of electrolyte transmissions. A paper published by Toyota scientists writes about their tests of a solid state battery which uses sulfide superionic conductors. All this means a superior battery.
The result is a battery that can operate at super capacitor levels to completely charge or discharge in just seven minutes – making it ideal for cars. Since it’s solid state that also means it’s far more stable and safer than current batteries. The solid-state unit should also be able to work in as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius and up to one hundred.
The electrolyte materials still pose challenges so don’t expect to see these in cars soon, but it’s a step in the right direction towards safer, faster charging batteries.
Fuel cell for phones and drones
A new fuel cell has been developed that could mean phones only need to charge once a week and drones stay airbourne for over an hour.
Scientists at Pohang University of Science and Technology in South Korea have, for the first time, combined porous stainless steel with thin-film electrolyte and electrodes of minimal heat capacity. The result is a battery that’s more durable and longer lasting than lithium-ion.
Development for phones, drones and even electric cars is expected to follow the announcement. Since it’s South Korea we may even see it in the next Samsung Galaxy S8 smartphone.
Graphene car batteries
Graphene batteries are the future. One company has developed a new battery, called Grabat, that could offer electric cars a driving range of up to 500 miles on a charge.
Graphenano, the company behind the development, says the batteries can be charged to full in just a few minutes. It can charge and discharge 33 times faster than lithium ion. Discharge is also crucial for things like cars that want vast amounts of power in order to pull away quickly.
The capacity of the 2.3V Grabat is huge with around 1000 Wh/kg which compares to lithium ion’s current 180 Wh/kg. The best part of all this is that these batteries should be ready to go by mid way through 2016.
By using lasers to burn electrode patterns into sheets of plastic manufacturing costs and effort drop massively. The result is a battery that can charge 50 times faster than current batteries and discharge even slower than current supercapacitors. They’re even tough, able to work after being bent over 10,000 times in testing.
Sodium-ion batteries, that use salt, have been used in laptops following the creation of a prototype by the French network of researchers and industrial firms called RS2E.
This battery uses a standard that means it can be placed in laptops and even work in electric cars like the Tesla Model S.
The exact method of build and how it works are being kept secret but the 6.5cm battery can manage 90 watt-hours per kilogram, making it comparable to lithium-ion but with a 2000 cycle lifespan, which should be improved.
The future of batteries is 3D. Prieto is the first company to crack this with its battery that uses a copper foam substrate.
This means these batteries will not only be safer, thanks to no flammable electrolyte, but they will also offer longer life, faster charging, five times higher density, be cheaper to make and be smaller than current offerings.
Prieto aims to place its batteries into small items first, like wearables. But it says the batteries can be upscaled so we could see them in phones and maybe even cars in the future.
Scientists at MIT, working with Samsung, have discovered solid-state batteries that are better than current lithium-ion efforts. These batteries should be safer, last longer and offer more power.
Current lithium-ion batteries rely on an electrolyte liquid to transport charged particles between the two electrodes. It’s this liquid that can be flammable and which degrades the battery, limiting life.
According to the MIT report these new batteries could be charged for hundreds of thousands of cycles before degrading. They could also provide a 20 to 30 per cent improvement in power density meaning that much more charge for whatever they are powering. And they aren’t flammable so they’re ideal for electric cars.
Nano ‘yolk’ triple capacity and charge in six minutes
Scientists at MIT have created a battery that triples the capacity of current offerings and can charge to full in just 6-minutes. It also does not degrade rapidly over time meaning it should last a long while.
The icing on the cake here is that production is inexpensive and easy to scale, so we could see the batteries appear soon.
Aluminium graphite charges to full in one minute
Scientists at Stanford University have developed an aluminium graphite battery that could replenish to full in a smartphone in just a minute.
Their aluminium graphite batteries are flexible, long lasting and charge ridiculously fast.
The only issue is they hold about half the power of a current lithium battery, but with charging to full in just a minute that’s not too much of a problem.
Alfa battery lasts 14 days and runs on water
A breakthrough in aluminium-air batteries means that in the future we should 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.
A team at Arizona State University have come up with a flexible battery using the ancient Japanese art of Kirigami.
The result means smartwatches could use a flexible strap battery for longer life and smaller build. Looking a little further forward it’ll be ideal for weaving power into smart clothes that monitor our health.
The initial battery prototype is slightly larger than it could be, meaning it’s less flexible too. Despite this the scientists managed to power a Samsung Gear 2 using a flexible band with the batteries inside. This was stretchy enough to move from the wrist to the bicep, and move with flexing, while still powering the smartwatch.
The key here is that this uses current tech but just changes the way it’s developed. For that reason it could be mass-produced today. Get ready for thinner smartwatches plus clothing with brains and power built in, soon.
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 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.