CESAsia 2015: Batteries Are Strangling Mobile Electronics

We need better energy storage—or a way to avoid having to use it

2 min read
CESAsia 2015: Batteries Are Strangling Mobile Electronics
Nikola Tesla was an early advocate of wirelessly transmitted electrical power—an idea that’s back in vogue.
Photo: Stephen Cass

On the second day of CESAsia, Tom Coughlin of the IEEE Consumer Electronics Society painted a grim picture of conventional mobile power technology. Based on trends to date, Coughlin estimates that the energy density of batteries is doubling only every 10 years, while Moore’s Law doubles the transistor count for CPUs every 18 months or so.

The result is an widening mismatch between what we’d like to do with mobile devices and what we can do. For example, according to Coughlin’s analysis, getting a smartphone’s battery to last a full week between charges, the way the ones powering old cellphones used to do, would require between 26 and 104 times the amount of energy typically stored by the batteries in today’s handsets. At the current lethargic pace of battery technology development, it would take decades to get a battery with enough juice to be an adequate match for the phone that sits in your pocket or purse right now, waiting for a recharge.

And that’s not even accounting for some of the power-hungry things we like to try with our phones, from computational imaging that could make the image sensors on today’s phones look like pinhole cameras, or continuous life logging.

In a valiant attempt to play catch-up, the Consumer Electronics society is pushing a new initiative in hopes of rapidly improving the power sources available for mobile devices: the Safe Advanced Mobile Power initiative.

The technical requirements for the ideal future power source the society envisions boil to these: In addition to providing enough energy, it has to be cost efficient, scaling with manufacturing volume so that by the time we’re knocking out this source by the hundred million, the unit cost should be no more than around US $20. It also has to be safe, and not likely to result in deaths either among users or among those employed in extracting and processing the raw materials. That’s a tall order, but it’s definitely worth a shot.

It’s entirely possible that battery technology will never get to where we need it to be for mobile devices. With that in mind, there are three alternatives to batteries that may someday usurp their dominance. The first is fuel cells, which various people have been trying to incorporate into things like laptops for a while now. The second is energy harvesting, sipping power from mechanical or thermal sources of energy in the environment. Last but not least is wireless power, whereby energy would be transmitted to mobile devices through the air. Recently, wireless has become increasingly popular as a way to recharge the batteries in mobile devices. But if wireless charging’s market share is to ever reach parity with that of batteries, improvements aimed at making it more useful will have to be made. More consumers will clamor for it once the range over which it works is extended and the amount of energy that can be transmitted over the air is increased.

If we can’t solve this power problem, then mobile devices are always going to be pale shadows of what they could really be.

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Deep Learning Could Bring the Concert Experience Home

The century-old quest for truly realistic sound production is finally paying off

12 min read
Image containing multiple aspects such as instruments and left and right open hands.
Stuart Bradford

Now that recorded sound has become ubiquitous, we hardly think about it. From our smartphones, smart speakers, TVs, radios, disc players, and car sound systems, it’s an enduring and enjoyable presence in our lives. In 2017, a survey by the polling firm Nielsen suggested that some 90 percent of the U.S. population listens to music regularly and that, on average, they do so 32 hours per week.

Behind this free-flowing pleasure are enormous industries applying technology to the long-standing goal of reproducing sound with the greatest possible realism. From Edison’s phonograph and the horn speakers of the 1880s, successive generations of engineers in pursuit of this ideal invented and exploited countless technologies: triode vacuum tubes, dynamic loudspeakers, magnetic phonograph cartridges, solid-state amplifier circuits in scores of different topologies, electrostatic speakers, optical discs, stereo, and surround sound. And over the past five decades, digital technologies, like audio compression and streaming, have transformed the music industry.

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