Has the Lion eaten up your phone?

Well, has it? I think so.

Puzzled? I am sure you are. Since when did the King of the Jungle start chewing on mobile phones?  Perhaps, it’s the jungle version of the Atkins diet.

Well….it’s neither.

The Lion I am referring to is the Li-ion battery that all of us have gotten so fond off on our mobile phones. And it is arguably the single component that the mobile phone depends on – all day long. When the battery dies, so does the phone. Until of course, it is recharged or replaced as the case may be.

And all of us who own mobile devices have to deal with the constant headache of charging these batteries to keep partaking the myriad benefits of our phone. So, the battery needs to be fed all the time else it does certainly eat up the  phone.

This brings me to the next question, of all the innovations on the mobile phone – the cool apps, the OS, the sleek industrial design etc, the battery is lagging behind. To understand why, let’s quickly look at how a Li-ion battery operates. Obviously, we know that Li-on cells are rechargeable – right? Meaning, by applying the right sort of conditions, the battery has a regenerative capacity.

In the case of the Li-ion battery the charge is held by a non-aqueous chemical solution. The anode (positive terminal) and cathode (negative terminal) are typically made up of carbon (graphite) and Lithium Cobalt Oxide respectively. The non-aqueous electrolyte is made up a mixture of organic carbonates that facilitate the flow of ions between the two battery terminals. The choice of terminals and the electrolyte depends on the battery application. I would be the first to tell you that beyond this, the chemistry of the battery gets way too complicated for me.

When the mobile phone is turned on the battery supplies the current to power up the various circuits. Charge (conventional current) begins to flow from the anode to cathode enabling the power up of the device. Over time as the device operates, charge is continuously being depleted from the battery. The battery icon that we see in our devices is actually an app that continuously monitors the battery management circuitry to provide a view of the battery.

Battery Management Circuit

The battery management circuitry is actually quite complex. The circuitry enables status reads, battery diagnostics, various battery modes and also the safe charging and discharging of the battery. In the case of Li-ion batteries, the charging voltage is higher than the voltage sourced by the batteries. The management circuit ensures that the right voltage exists across these terminals for safe charging.

In comparison with other rechargeable batteries in the market such as NiCd or NiMH, the Li-ion has a number of advantages that explains it’s prevalence in many CE devices. Some advantages are:

  1. Form Factor – The batteries can be easily molded into various form factors. The battery  used in mobile phones are ultra thin prismatic cells as opposed to the regular cells used in say laptops.
  2. Charge capacity – Li-ion has the highest charge density in its class. 2x more than a corresponding Nickel Cadmium cell.
  3. Low self discharge – Meaning, when not used they are much less susceptible to discharging

The disadvantages of these batteries are performance degradation with temperature, thermal runaway, risk of fire and so forth. But these risks are manageable.

Despite these apparent advantages and so forth, the needle has not really moved in terms of any innovations in the battery space. The main reasons are the lack of a commercially viable elements that have better electrical and chemical characteristics as compared the to the status-quo. As a consequence, there exists no technology as of today that prevents frequent charging of our charge-guzzling smart phones. It’s a common sight in the airports to see people hunting for power outlets to charge their phones. Battery innovations have not kept pace with handset hardware.

But that is not to say that there aren’t folks addressing this problem. There are many startups and labs across several universities engaged in trying to commercialize research. Further, there seems to be ample funding in this space – it is a big opportunity. The player(s) who will succeed could enter a money pit as every device manufacturer will line up at their door step. Companies such as Seeo, Sakti3, Pellion, QuantumScape, Atieva etc are making headway in battery research and several of these companies are well funded either by grants or VC money. Bill Gates has also invested in a company called “Liquid Metal Battery” out of MIT. Now, when the likes of Bill Gates are investing in this market, you know something is definitely up.

I think we are still ways off from a viable solution for the consumer marketplace. It was Sony who pioneered the Li-ion battery and gave it life in the commercial world. That was in the late 80s and early 90s, more than two decades ago. So, an innovation is seriously due and I think it is a matter of time before we see one.

But until that happens, I would stand by the title of this post….the “The Lion has eaten our phones…”

Thoughts?

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One Response to Has the Lion eaten up your phone?

  1. Pingback: “Power Up” – A new social network? | Pixel Ballads

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