I used to think I had bad tech karma. After just six months, I was lucky to get a full day of standby time from my Motorola cell phone. My Toshiba laptop, which once lasted coast-to-coast, now won't make it to Chicago. What gives? Why can't someone build a better battery?
Turns out this is less about karma than about chemistry. The reality is, batteries start losing their juice the moment you first charge them. It's called "capacity fade." As a result, every battery has a finite number of charges before it dies. Laptop batteries get at most 400 charges, or two to three years of use, says Howard Locker, chief architect for desktop and mobile development at IBM's personal computer division. And some manufacturers produce batteries that charge in just 15 or 30 minutes. The rapid charging damages the materials inside, reducing the unit's life.
Chemically, nothing new has happened in batteries since 1991, when Sony introduced its rechargeable lithium-ion cell. And sadly, there's not much earth-shattering on the horizon. "There just haven't been any leaps and bounds in terms of battery chemistry itself in many years," says David Heacock, vice president of Texas Instruments' portable power group. "What we're playing with now... are just incremental improvements."
It's not that no one's trying. Valence Technology has patented a new higher-performing lithium-polymer battery technology called Saphion, but it will mostly power such big machines as electric wheelchairs. MPhase Technologies is trying to commercialize a nanobattery from Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs — but that will only be used in military sensor devices for now and likely won't appear commercially for several years. And other companies are developing hydrogen fuel cells for laptops, but no one knows how to refill drained cells, or whether airlines will ever approve bringing fuel cells onboard.
Instead of waiting for a silver-bullet battery, Locker suggests, we're better off focusing on the other side of the equation: power management. Your computer screen saps about 40% of the power your notebook consumes; spinning hard drives, wireless functionality, size, and weight also determine battery performance. The more efficient those features, simply, the longer your batteries will last.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.