Industry inertia holds back battery innovation

Industry inertia holds back battery innovation

Summary: Manufacturers are not investing in improving the overall technology due to a lack of incentives from a cost perspective, while customers are also not hankering for improvements.

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The lack of incentives to innovate on batteries due to cheaper existing materials and customer apathy mean the IT industry is still hugely reliant on aging technology, and this inertia needs to be addressed.

Fernando Gomez-Baquero, co-founder and CEO of Battery Energy Storage Systems (BESS) Technologies, noted there has been a "less than optimal" investment to improve battery technology since the Lithium-ion battery was invented in the 1970s and commercialized by Sony.

Since then, most investments have been targeting electrical semiconductors and not battery technology itself. In fact, the investment trend currently has shifted to mobile devices but many companies continue to steer clear of funding innovations in batteries, Gomez-Baquero added.

One of the reasons for this industry-wide apathy could be because batteries are now regarded as commodity products and thus a low profit margin business. As a result, many assemblers and material manufacturers are mostly concerned with producing high volumes of batteries at low costs, he said.

For example, Lithium-ion batteries use graphite as the anode material of a battery. Manufacturers favor graphite over alternatives such as silicon and germanium, which has higher energy density, because it is so cheap and there is little incentive to change this practice, the executive explained.

Battery tech not key focus
Manufacturers aside, most consumers also pay little attention to the batteries they use in their gadgets as these are secondary components to them.

"The more consumers know and focus on a component, the more the market will move to improve it. This is why battery innovation has stalled for a while," Gomez-Baquero noted.

The innovation in the battery space is now centered around making them slimmer and longer to match the growing screen sizes of mobile devices, particularly smartphones, rather than improving the overall technology, added Visal Narain, energy and power systems industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan.

There are also technical constraints to consider, Narain noted. The widely-used Lithium-ion battery, for instance, can only work with a certain complementary chemical component to enable optimal charging of energy. This then limits manufacturers' scope to experiment on the composition of the battery components, he explained.

There are promising projects in the pipeline currently that might signal a change in priority within the industry. Gomez-Baquero pointed to the Lithium-air development for electric cars as an example.

Manufacturers will need to "fight the inertia" and resist the temptation of continuing to produce cheap, underperforming batteries, but instead choose to make cost-competitive, high-performing ones. This, the CEO said, will be a "bumpy" road ahead for them.

Adopt holistic power management view
In the interim, he called on device makers to pay extra attention in balancing adding new features to mobile devices with the type of batteries they intend to use. In other words, they should have a holistic view on power management for their devices which can lead to incremental improvements in battery life, Gomez-Baquero said.

LG's latest Nexus smartphone, for example, did not include LTE capability and he speculated that this was because the feature would sap too much battery life.

A Lenovo spokesperson corroborated Gomez-Baquero's point, saying device makers tend to choose the wrong batteries to go with their devices.

The choice of battery depends on a number of factors, including size, processor, display and power management algorithms, and manufacturers will need to strike the perfect balance for optimum battery performance, he stated.

Ultimately, the best performing devices tend not to be the ones with "fantastic" batteries. "[It is] the one that can have a combination of energy generation, storage, use and management that will [pos]e minimum disruption in a consumer's daily activity," said Gomez-Baquero.

Topics: Hardware, Smartphones

Ellyne Phneah

About Ellyne Phneah

Elly grew up on the adrenaline of crime fiction and it spurred her interest in cybercrime, privacy and the terror on the dark side of IT. At ZDNet Asia, she has made it her mission to warn readers of upcoming security threats, while also covering other tech issues.

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2 comments
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  • Ya Gotta Be Kucking Fidding

    Whaddaya mean, "not hankering for improvements"!? When the first question in EVERY SINGLE REVIEW is "how long does the battery last?"? OF COURSE customers are hankering for improvements! And any company that can get a significant edge in this would pretty much rule the market.
    ldo17
    • Correction

      In my comments to the ZDNet editor I did not say that consumers are not hankering for improvements. Rather, I mentioned that the perception about batteries as fundamental components of electronic devices is quickly changing (becoming more mainstream), and that this perception drives battery innovation.

      However, I do think that the emphasis on battery performance is a more recent phenomenon than the emphasis on screen resolution or the emphasis on processor speed. While a lot of people can tell you who makes an iPhone's processor or screen (or who are the big players on those industries), less people are able to tell you who makes the battery. Consumers are still not as sophisticated in their knowledge of battery performance. For example, few people know that a battery with more energy (more mAh's or more kWh's) is not always immediately better. Some of those batteries can offer higher energies only if the charging time is increased, or only if the lifetime (number of times you can charge and discharge) of the battery is reduced. In this age consumers get sophisticated quickly, so I have no doubt soon enough consumers will abandon companies that fail to provide improvements in energy storage and management.
      Fernando Gomez-Baquero