One of the great ongoing and under-reported dramas is the race to keep portable gadgets running a reasonable amount of time. The demands, quite simply, are growing more quickly than traditional batteries' ability to sustain them. The flip side of the danger is that the companies that solve it will make a pretty penny. Many of them, in fact.
This week, 3-year-old Power Air announced a recharging device fueled by zinc. This CNET piece does a good job of telling the story, which is given a bit more zest and timeliness by the fact that zinc is an environmentally-friendly element. The story says that the company is starting with handheld devices it will introduce ZAFC Powerpacks at the Consumer Electronics Show in January -- but that the ultimate goal is for the technology to power boats and vehicles. The story mentions two other initiatives: liquid fuel cells technology from Medis and motion recharging from M2E.
Perhaps we are writing off the good old lithium ion battery a bit hastily, however. This PhysOrg.com piece, which seems like a scientific abstract though it is not noted as such, says that one of the limiting factors in today's batteries is the low capacity of graphite, the element used to store lithium ions freed during the charging process. The story says researchers at Hanyang University in Korea have found a way to make a more porous silicon substance stand up to the strain of continual charging cycles. Not only is the substance capable of more storage, but it could lead to faster recharging.
The good news here is that there seem to be so many vendors and manufacturers accepting the challenge. For instance, this highly technical paper discusses the attributes of double-layer capacitors using the substance grapheme. In another bit of news, myFC AB, a Swedish company, has released FuelCellSticker. These are 0.11-inch thick, 0.2 ounce cells that can be stacked. Each provides 0.9 watts of power at 0.5 volts, the story says. FuelCellSticker's are based on Polymer Electrolyte Member Fuel Cell technology.
The most commonly mentioned lithium-ion replacement are direct methanol fuel cells (DMFC). This piece says Toshiba plans to release mobile devices using DMFCs by March. The company has shown prototypes, including a phone with a DMFC at CEATEC Japan 2008, where the first scheduled production release was announced. The cartridge in the W55T device can accommodate a 50 milliliter cartridge with 99.5 percent methanol. Toshiba will use a single type of cartridge for digital cameras, laptops and other devices, the piece says.
The startling thing about all this isn't that there are a lot of companies trying to cash in on this technology challenge. It's that so many are attacking the problem from different angles. The technologies range from improved versions of what we have today to the use of exotic substances. It seems assured that the industry is just putting the finishing touches on DMFCs. The icing on the cake would be if the initial problem leads to several solutions.