Device Powering: The News Keeps Going and Going

Carl Weinschenk

One of the most important and interesting areas in mobility is powering. It's also refreshingly straightforward: Devices are demanding more juice, but the science of providing it is struggling to keep up. There is a lot at stake, and small armies of very smart people with big money behind them are working very hard on the problem.


The importance of winning this battle is summed up well by Carmi Levy at betanews:

Every new feature seems to require a new kind of radio. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, and multiple flavors of second- and third-generation cell network coverage may result in the electronic age equivalent of the Swiss Army knife, but they exact a heavy toll on battery life.


It's a particularly interesting area to cover because of all the potential solutions. There are, roughly, three approaches: Better managing power on the device in an effort to stretch available energy, improving current lithium-ion batteries and developing new power sources.

Levy offers no concrete suggestions other than a requirement that performance estimates akin to the Environmental Protection Agency's fuel economy ratings be adopted so that shoppers know what they are getting. That would be helpful, of course, but does nothing to confront the problem itself.

The first category -- stretching the electronic soup through better management -- is the most mundane. While beneficial, turning off screen illumination quicker or tweaking the way in which Bluetooth radios look for other Bluetooth devices isn't too exciting. The same can be said for efforts to upgrade the current type of batteries.

The interesting category is the new technology. Smarter Technology today posted a story that describes research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in which heat is repurposed to create electricity. Electronic devices emit, or dissipate, heat. MIT is combining two things-nanoscale quantum dots and micro-gap thermal effects-to create thermophotovoltaic materials.

That's a mouthful. Lots of things done at MIT are. The story says that thermophotovoltaics isn't new. The story details how an MIT spinoff is planning to commercialize research being done at the school. Two generations of the technology, each promising a ten-fold increase over today's thermophotovoltaics, could eventually lead to performance 100 times better than today's.

Technology is full of surprises, and here's one: There is ongoing research focusing on the use of familiar algae-which is technically called Cladophora-as an energy source. The story says Cladophora produces a particular type of cellulose that researchers have coaxed into holding and discharging electricity. The algae can be recharged as well. The cellulose has a very large surface area, meaning that the electrical yield could be great. Researchers suggest that an algae battery could hold a 50 percent to 200 percent larger charge than other batteries. It potentially could recharge more quickly and last longer between charges.

The hope is that some of these potential solutions-from the boring to the exciting-are solid enough for commercialization. Until that time, however, the best advice is to cut down as much as possible on functions that hog battery power.

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