Fixing Mobile's Weakest Link


By Samuel Greengard

We've witnessed a remarkable transformation in computing over the last few years. Although laptops and mobile phones have been around for a few decades, the emergence of smartphones, tablets and cloud computing have ushered in a post-PC world. Sales of conventional desktop and laptop computers are dropping by double digits annually, while sales of tablets and smartphones have exploded.

There's just one problem. Keeping these handheld devices up and running is a growing challenge. An iPhone, perhaps the most remarkable device ever designed, often cannot make it through a day. Although iPads, Kindles and Android tablets offer much better battery life, they present limitations for many people and jobs. Limited battery life has spawned an entire industry of recharging devices, battery cases and backup batteries.

Unfortunately, many of us have to plan our day around recharges. We wind up searching for outlets in planes, trains, automobiles, and all the airports and train stations that go with them. Although some airports now sport recharging centers or have positioned outlets below seats, too many facilities still aren't operating in the 21st century. Let's not even talk about hotels.

For years, researchers have labored to build better batteries. Today's lithium ion batteries are actually quite remarkable considering the number of chips and functions running on them.

However, if we're to venture into mobility in a pervasive and saturated way, the situation must improve radically. The issue isn't just about battery life; it's also about new form factors and entirely new ways to use mobile technology.

Scientists are hard at work on the task. For example, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign appear to have developed a new lithium-ion battery that has 2,000 times the power of today's devices. What's more, the battery could enable sensors or radio signals that broadcast 30 times farther, or build devices 30 times smaller.

Meanwhile, researchers at Harvard University are exploring ways of printing batteries the size of a grain of sand using 3-D printing technology. These batteries could power small medical implants and an array of nano-devices.

For now, the primary issue is finding a way to keep mobile devices running until bedtime. Battery power has only increased by about a factor of 8 since French physicist Gaston Planté invented the first rechargeable battery in 1860.

Let's hope that researchers can supercharge their efforts and change the mobile power dynamic in a significant way.