By Dr. Francis Wang, CEO of NanoGraf, an advanced battery material startup whose patented silicon-graphene anode technology enables longer-lasting, higher-energy, and higher-power lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles, consumer electronics and more.
Study after study shows that smartphone users want longer-lasting batteries more than any other feature. The average phone battery lasts less than a day, and many of us have grown accustomed to bringing a charger everywhere we go.
A number of factors are making this problem even more acute. The rise in video conferencing brought on by COVID-19 means our batteries get drained even faster. The 5G networks that are increasingly available in the UK (and elsewhere) could mean increased strain on our devices’ batteries, as consumers run more apps and use more data throughout the day.
Luckily, the next generation of mobile battery technology is rapidly approaching mainstream adoption.
In order to understand the progress being made with mobile battery technology, it is useful to review the basics of how a lithium-ion battery works.
A typical lithium-ion battery cell consists of four main components: cathode, anode, separator and electrolyte. Charge is stored within the anode (-) and cathode (+), and when a load completes the circuit, charge in the form of lithium ions flow to power our portable electronic devices.
Today, there are two primary ways that battery manufacturers are driving improvements in mobile batteries:
- Longer run times: This refers to how many hours (or days) a battery lasts before it must be recharged.
- Longer life-cycles: This refers to the battery’s lifespan — how many years it works before it becomes significantly degraded (and must be replaced).
Over the next 5 years, it is expected that technological improvements driving longer run times will be a result of new anode technologies, while improvements driving longer life-cycles, or lifespans, will be a result of new cathode technologies.
On the anode side, it is anticipated that advanced silicon anodes with significantly higher energy densities will begin to slowly replace traditional graphite anode technologies. Up until now, silicon anodes have been applied in niche high power applications, but battery market reports out of this year’s Battery Japan conference (i.e., B3 Corporation) indicate that advanced silicon anodes are starting to appear in more mainstream portable electronic devices. Smartphone users can expect perceivable increases in run-times over the next 3-5 years, as silicon anodes see widespread adoption.
On the cathode side, there are similarly promising developments taking place. Tesla recently made headlines when one of its research partners — a team of physicists at Dalhousie University in Canada — announced that they had developed a new lithium-ion battery that (they say) will work for 1 million miles of driving before needing to be replaced.
Though it’s still in the early stages of development, Tesla’s new battery technology shows tremendous promise, not just for electric vehicles but for smartphones, too, since the technology used in electric vehicle batteries and mobile phones are interchangeable.
The battery that the team at Dalhousie University patented has not only good energy density but also excellent cycle life. Currently, the lifespan of most mobile batteries on the market dictate that users replace batteries or devices after several years of use. The technology developed at Dalhousie University would enable mobile phone users to hold on to devices (i.e., +3 years), as battery life would no longer be a limiting factor.
Whether or not the advent of 5G will put greater strain on our phone batteries is up for debate. Some industry leaders, like Verizon chairman Lowell McAdam, have predicted that, as 5G leads to increased automation, it will reduce the need for many of the tasks we use our phones for, meaning less strain on battery life.
Others, though, have pointed out that, as 5G is rolled out piecemeal, on a city-by-city basis, phones will have to switch back and forth from 4G to 5G networks, causing battery drain.
Once 5G infrastructure is more fully built out, that’s likely to become less of an issue. It remains to be seen whether 5G will be more taxing on our phones’ batteries than previous generations of cellular technology.
What isn’t likely to change, regardless of the outcome of 5G, is consumers’ desires to be “always on.” That behavior means increased energy consumption, and the next generation of smartphone batteries will have to meet those demands.