Mobile Device Powering Challenges Just Keep Going and Going

Carl Weinschenk
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Human nature is at it again. Often, problems are anointed as the 800-pound gorilla in the room that will end life-or, in this case, a business-as we know it. Rarely are things as bad as they are hyped to be (think Y2K) and rarely is the work done to downgrade the hurricane to a harmless shower acknowledged.

Once the threat dissipates, life goes on as if the original danger never existed.

So, now, it is time to acknowledge that the ominous threat du jour from a couple of years ago-that insufficient battery life of mobile devices would bring the bright mobile future to a screeching halt-seems to be largely under control. Of course, the problem could recur. But the progress that has been made is startling in that the time between re-energizing has grown at the same time the demand on devices has been increasing.

There are several ways to increase the usable life of a mobile device before the power supply has to be replenished. Note that I did not use the word "battery" or phrase "battery life" in that sentence. That's because one of the methods is to abandon batteries in favor of newer technology. The most common alternative is the direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC).

A few years ago, all sorts of exotic-sounding options were discussed and written about. News of these options and DMFC in general, in relation to mobile devices, seems to have faded. Whether that is due to a feeling that progress made in other areas is reducing the need (and seed money) or if that power industry is focusing on bigger devices, such as automobiles, is unclear.

The three more prosaic ways to improve powering are to drive integration of chips and improve efficiency of processors and other underlying technical infrastructure, improve battery yields (and enlarge them due to the space opened up by the efficiency gained by the deeper integration) and to manage devices in a way that doles out power a bit more parsimoniously.

In general, there is a certain level of wastefulness in how devices operate. This makes it a great place to initially tackle the issue. This list of features offered by a product called Battery Booster is a good look at where power can be gained. A perfect example of innovative onboard power management is an idea from University of Michigan researchers, called "Energy-Minimizing Idle Listening (E-MiLi)," that was released this week. Like most good ideas, it's pretty simple: Today, smartphones with Wi-Fi functionality are constantly on, listening for packets that announce an available hotspot. E-MiLi, which its developers say can save as much as 50 percent of battery power, focus on sending the Wi-Fi circuitry into a deep sleep until electronic roosters arrive to awaken them. This is how Smarter Technology describes what the next step may be:

The team estimates that more than 90 percent of mobile devices with WiFi spend up to 80 percent of their time in idle mode today. The new subconscious mode, on the other hand, cuts power to the WiFi circuits until they are needed, then springs back to life before any data packets can be lost, greatly extending battery life without having to manually turn WiFi on and off.

Another idea-which builds on the concept of wearable computing-focuses on the harvesting of energy that is generated by the most basic form of mobility:

University of Wisconsin-Madison engineering researchers Tom Krupenkin and J. Ashley Taylor have developed an in-shoe system that harvests the energy generated by walking. Currently, this energy is lost as heat. With their technology, however, they claim that up to 20 watts of electricity could be generated, and stored in an incorporated rechargeable battery.

Challenges still are ahead. For one thing, LTE networks require more juice than 2G or 3G networks. New twists, such as 3D mobile displays, certainly will keep researchers employed. For now, however, things seem to be under control. And for that, the industry should be recognized.

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