The rechargeable batteries powering almost all our mobile, portable, and wireless devices are made of lithium-ion, and they suck.
But we’ve been forced to accept that we need to charge these devices every day, sometimes several times a day.
Phones? Good luck making it a full day on a charge if you use it a lot.
Drones? Many consumer models need a two-hour charge after 20 minutes of flight time.
Not to mention some smartwatches like the Moto 360, which have been plagued with poor battery life.
It’s not the worst thing in the world, but when you realise that your powerful new smartphone is essentially running on the same battery technology as the 1996 Motorola StarTAC, you start to wonder why batteries haven’t kept up.
In fact, it seems like the proverbial “they” are doing everything but improving the battery lives of mobile and portable devices themselves. Software gets more power efficient, and many phones are adding power-saving modes. It’s gotten so bad that entire companies like Mophie, the maker of battery cases and external packs, exist simply to create accessories that extend battery life.
One company, 24M, has a potential solution, but it’s testing its new technology with electric vehicles and battery-powered generators for the home before dabbling in mobile devices.
We’re not done with lithium-ion just yet
“When you compare lithium-ion to a lot of other chemistries, it is not an expensive chemistry. It is very cost competitive,” Dr. Yet-Ming Chiang, 24M’s chief scientist and cofounder told Tech Insider in an interview. “There are a few chemistries that are lower [in cost], but they all face a lot of technical challenges before they’re ready for market. So, that’s why today, for so many applications, lithium-ion is the preferred chemistry.”
The short answer? There’s nothing else at the moment that can safely store more energy with as long a lifespan at a lower cost.
Lithium-ion is the best we’ve got.
However, Chiang said lithium-ion-powered devices could at least double or even triple their performance in the near future, potentially leading to devices that last two to three times longer on a single charge.
Their most recent lithium-ion battery design, which it announced in June this year, could add up to a 20% more energy storage than a conventional battery by replacing the inactive non-energy-storing materials in conventional batteries with active energy-storing materials.
How does it work?
In the lithium-ion battery that’s powering most devices today, there are several microscopically thin layers (up to 25 microns thick) of inactive materials that don’t add to battery’s energy storage. They’re merely structural supports for energy-storing active materials.
24M is doing away with those inactive materials, which makes more room for active materials that can store power. What’s more, this kind of innovation is also compatible with future battery chemistries when they emerge.
Sounds good! Let’s shoot it with a gun
So, we have a more efficient lithium-ion battery, but 24M has another trick that addresses the fact that we need to design products around the battery.
Current conventional batteries can only take on a solid, rigid form, which means they can only fit in the solid, evenly shaped parts of your device. They will explode if you try to make them anything but flat.
24M’s batteries aren’t rigid; they’re semi-solid. “You can take our batteries and fold them up like an accordion,” Chiang said. “You can do Origami with our battery and it won’t fail. It won’t produce an internal short.”
To prove a point, 24M shot one of its batteries with a gun, and it continued to output energy without exploding.
Not only does that mean that semi-solid batteries are safer, they can finally break free from their rigid cages and fill any nooks or crannies of empty space in a device. For example, a flexible battery could fit in the headband of a pair of Bluetooth headphones. More battery means longer lasting devices.
It’s huge for wearables like smartwatches, too, as a battery can be stored within the wrist strap for a battery life you can count in days rather than hours.
But flexible batteries means a potentially huge leap in future design innovation because product designers won’t be restricted to today’s conventional battery limitations. They’d essentially only be limited by their imaginations.
Ingeniously, Apple developed a lithium-ion battery with an innovative stepped design so it can use up as much empty space as possible for its newest ultra-slim MacBook. It works, but the batteries are still rigid and it’s not a long-term solution for design.
More efficient batteries that can fold into paper planes are fantastic, but it’s not going to be exciting if it’s more expensive to make.
So it’s a good thing that 24M’s primary focus is to “reinvent li-ion battery to cut today’s li-ion costs in half,” as 24m’s CEO Throop Wilder told Tech Insider.
24M says its design reduces manufacturing costs. By a lot.
Batteries will be much, much cheaper
“In order to reach the economies of scale that allow you to be cost competitive with lithium-ion, you have to spend about $US1 billion on a factory,” Chiang said. “We have a modular manufacturing plant approach where we get the economies of scale of cost reduction at a much, much smaller scale, about $US12 million.”
In other words, a $US12 million 24M factory can make as many batteries as a $US1 billion conventional battery factory. That’s an 88% reduction in manufacturing costs, and a 24M promotional video says its batteries will cost 40% less than a conventional battery with similar capacity, which could ultimately mean cheaper gadgets.
Mobile and portable tech companies need to take notice
24M will begin large scale production of its batteries in 2017, it’s currently focusing on grid and EV applications. But other device makers should also take notice, as 24M’s relatively inexpensive battery manufacturing process could mean less expensive gadgets both for gadget makers themselves and the consumer.
On top of that, more efficient batteries that can bend and flex in pretty much any position to fit in every nook and cranny of your gadgets could also mean longer battery life and brand new possibilities for design. Chiang and Throop made sure to reiterate that “the comformality, flexibility, and abuse tolerance of 24M’s cell could be especially advantageous in wearable devices.”
It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.
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