The Next Big Thing Is Power
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Power is set to be the next multi billion dollar market with several vendors investing millions into R&D.NEC also has developed an extremely thin (about 1/100th of an inch) rechargeable battery that the company claims can be recharged in about 30 seconds. But the battery’s main claim to fame is its flexibility, which makes it ideal for smart ID cards and similar devices

It seems like my two-year-old grandson Max’s first word was “batteries.” Hardly surprising since he’s surrounded by toys that almost fly around the room (some by remote control), feature an impressive array of flashing lights and make lots of noise.

Of course, as he gets a little older, he’ll be thinking about getting his own cell phone, MP3 player, probably with video playback capability, a digital camera/camcorder and whatever other innovative new products the industry thinks up during the next several years.

Obviously, all of these products need batteries-billions of dollars worth of batteries. And with new technologies emerging, consumer electronics OEMs and retailers finally can talk seriously about batteries and product differentiation in the same breath and the new products they’re marketing and developing.

The arrival of the first generation of mico fuel cells promises up to 20 hours of cell phone or laptop operation from a single fuel cell cartridge.

“The category has been relatively flat in the past few years,” says Brian Kimberlin, director of marketing for the Panasonic Battery Corp. of America. But that’s changing. The growth of multifunction devices, price decreases and increased competition in the category seem to be boosting battery sales.

NanoMarkets LC, a market research and consulting firm, recently projected the market for batteries for mobile electronics, communications and computing will top $9 billion by the year 2010, with new battery chemistries expected to account for a growing percentage of that revenue. Nano Markets also believe that firms such as Duracell, Energizer, (Gillette), Panasonic, Sony, Toshiba and Ultralife will continue to dominate the power source market for mobile devices.

Companies like Panasonic have another advantage. “We’re an electronics company,” says Kimberlin. “We know what’s coming in the future, so we’re trying to make sure we have the right portable power for those types of products.”

The big issue with most consumers is the often short time span between required battery changes or charges. NanoMarkets calls it the single biggest obstacle to the ubiquitous computing and smart phones, and says the current generation of lithium batteries, even while doubling their energy capacity during the past 10 years, “simply doesn’t have the capacity to support the multifunctional, always-on operating model that now is being pushed by handset and computer makers.”

Battery manufacturers concur, readily admitting that consumers have been complaining for years that their batteries don’t last long enough to enable them to get the full benefit of their new high-tech portable electronics.

Hoping to improve their performance, battery manufacturers have continued to tweak the chemistry of their batteries, but this only goes so far. Panasonic’s parent company, Matsushita Electric Industrial, announced about a year ago that it was jointly developing with Intel Corp. rechargeable lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries with enough efficiency to keep a notebook PC running for at least eight hours. Under this arrangement, Matsushita would work to improve its battery technology, while Intel would develop the power-saving circuit technology.

Meanwhile, the race is on to create totally new products and features. Portable consumer devices such as mobile phones, MP3 and audio CD players, digital cameras, notebooks and laptops, and PDAs are offering new products with new features, driving the growth of rechargeable, high density lithium batteries, while other, older battery technologies such as nickel metal hydride (NiMH) and nickel cadmium (NiCd) continue to hang in there as consumer market staples. (iPod and other digital music players are designed to run on AAA batteries, mainly because they’re relatively inexpensive. Apple Computer alone sold 14 million iPods in the fourth quarter alone, and it’s estimated that about 25 million people own MP3 players.)

“The big news is lithium-ion batteries, particularly their impact on digital cameras, although some low-end digital cameras still require alkaline batteries,” says Sara Bradford, research manager for the Power Systems Group at market researcher Frost & Sullivan. “The issue is usage,” says Bradford. Can today’s batteries handle all of the features and functions currently being offered in new mobile phones? Even Li-ion batteries are limited to 500-1,000 recharges, depending on usage.

The problem, she says, is that “the market for multifunctional devices is growing at a higher rate than improvements in the batteries themselves.” But along with that growth comes more battery sales. Bradford says revenue from consumer secondary rechargeable batteries exceeded $4.2 billion in 2004, and she expects the market for these batteries to continue to grow at a steady rate during the next several years.

The growth of lithium rechargeable batteries in the mobile audio and video segment also looks healthy, she says, despite strong competition from other battery types. Another issue is that battery manufacturers only have been able to make small improvements in battery technology and-until recently-very little in the way of product differentiation.

The big three-Duracell, Energizer and Panasonic-have entered the next generation battery war with the introduction of new technology batteries-nickel oxyhydroxide (NiOOH) battery for Panasonic and Duracell and Energizer’s e2 Lithium model.

Panasonic launched its NiOOH-based Oxyride Extreme Power battery in July 2005. It competes with alkaline and already is available at several major retailers. In early February, Duracell introduced its PowerPix, also a NiOOH battery. Energizer is promoting its e2 Lithium, which is available in all popular battery sizes, as the only AA 1.5-volt Li-ion battery.

Panasonic says it has continued to improve its Oxyride batteries (an upgraded version is scheduled to hit retailers’ shelves this spring) and offers independent lab testing to show a performance comparison showing the number of photos a digital camera was able to take using AA Duracell Coppertop, Duracell Ultra, Energizer Max, Energizer E2 Titanium, Panasonic Digital, Panasonic Oxyride and new and improved Panasonic Oxyride batteries. Panasonic says tests show that both current and new Oxyride batteries outperform alkaline by as many as 3.2 times. (Most compact cameras use Li-ion cells and provide, on average, about 300 shots between charges.)

“THE BIG NEWS IS LITHIUM-ION BATTERIES, PARTICULARLY THEIR IMPACT ON DIGITAL CAMERAS” – Sara Bradford, research manager for the Power Systems Group at market researcher Frost & Sullivan

Another version of Li-ion is lithium polymer batteries, used mostly with smartcards and radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, but also in military, medical and slim line smartphone applications. Sales of these batteries are projected to reach $1 billion in 2010.

The highly-touted and long-awaited micro fuel cells will be next, if they can get past the prototype stage.

So far, fuel cell companies only have been providing portable device manufacturers with prototypes or very small commercial orders. Panasonic demonstrated its fuel cell technology for laptop computers at the 2006 International CES in Las Vegas. But the arrival of the first generation of mico fuel cells promises up to 20 hours of cell phone or laptop operation from a single fuel cell cartridge.

Toshiba, Hitachi, Fujitsu, NEC, Neah Power Systems, MTI Microfuel Cells, Panasonic and Smart Fuel Cell AG usually are mentioned as key players in the portable fuel cell business. Casio, Samsung, Sony and chip manufacturer STMicroelectronics also are known to be developing fuel cells small enough to fit inside a mobile handset, as are IBM and Sanyo, which announced plans to produce a methanol-based IBM Thinkpad before IBM sold its PC business to Lenova, a Chinese company.

Fujitsu Laboratories is working with Japanese cell phone carrier NTT DoCoMo to develop a prototype of a micro fuel cell and an external re-charger for FOMA handsets. Fujitsu says it is concentrating its R&D on developing replaceable fuel cells to extend the operation time of mobile devices. Fujitsu expects its micro fuel cells to provide 10 times the operating capacity of conventional Li-ion batteries eventually.

KDDI, another leading Japanese telecom operator, has been working with Toshiba and Hitachi to produce a prototype of a mobile phone powered by fuel cells.

Nokia, on the other hand, announced about a year ago that it was canceling plans for the development of a methanol-based fuel-cell-powered cell phone, mainly because the phone had more features than the fuel cell could handle. However, Motorola, Nokia’s leading competitor in the cell phone market, says it is continuing its fuel cell research program and remains bullish on the technology.

Despite all the excitement about micro fuel cells, commercialization of this technology is still down the road.

The delay is not only a function of further developing the technology, but in lowering the cost of this new technology to acceptable consumer market levels. Another issue is developing industry standards for the types of fuels to be used in these new power sources. It appears that the first fuel cells used with CE products won’t actually be small enough to be integrated into any portable device, but could very well be portable units themselves-actually accessories, probably about the size of a paperback book-that could be used to charge other portable devices. The industry will have to come to an agreement on a standard size for fuel cell cartridges, not only to enable the use of virtually any brand of fuel cell but because retailers will dedicate only so much shelf space for different sizes or types of cartridges.

The fuel for these new batteries is a critical issue. Currently, the micro fuel cell of choice is methanol, but this material has safety issues and wasn’t allowed on commercial aircraft. This could change as Underwriters Laboratories and CSA America, which develops standards for fuel cells and related energy sectors in the U.S. market, are jointly developing a new standard that will set requirements for micro fuel cell systems, including the cartridges. The possibility under discussion is that consumers would be able to carry two cigarette lighter-size fuel cell cartridges at a time on board an airplane.

But the list of possibilities for fuels is not limited to methanol, says Harry Jones, a UL senior research engineer. Other candidates include butane, hydrogen, formic acid (Motorola has invested in Tekion Inc., which is working to commercialize this technology), and bio-fuel cells, which power implantable electrically operated medical devices. F&S’s Bradford also says some product designers are looking at a syringe type of refueling of their portable electronic products, while others are thinking more along the lines of a credit card design, where users could simply slide the fuel cell into their device, and then discard it when it’s depleted. In fact, all of the cartridge designs currently under development would be disposable.

Other new battery technologies are showing promise as well.

NEC has developed what it calls an Organic Radical Battery (ORB) that is based on a cell structure similar to Li-ion batteries. This new battery uses an organic compound called PTMA. It also offers higher power than Li-ion batteries of a similar size, but not quite the same energy density-a measure of how long the battery will last. A prototype of the battery measures 55 mm by 43 mm by 4 mm thick, or about the size of a stack of three credit cards. NEC says the ORB is still under development and may be two or three years away from retailer’s shelves.

NEC also has developed an extremely thin (about 1/100th of an inch) rechargeable battery that the company claims can be recharged in about 30 seconds. But the battery’s main claim to fame is its flexibility, which makes it ideal for smart ID cards and similar devices. NEC hasn’t said when the new battery will be available commercially, or what products it will target with the new battery.

An environmentally friendly development is Sony’s relatively new mercury-free silver oxide battery. Announced in the fall of 2004, Sony began delivering 10 models of the battery worldwide in January 2005. They’re mainly used for wrist watches and small thermometers, but they also are finding their way into mobile games.

The semiconductor industry also has made a huge contribution to improving battery life with the development of specially-designed power management chips that dynamically can allocate power usage for feature-rich products. “The run-time of batteries would be significantly less without the development of these chips,” says Bradford of F&S.

Typical of these devices is Intel’s new Core Duo processor which reportedly offers more running time for notebooks and laptops. Another example is Linear Technology’s highly miniaturized, fully integrated battery IC for charging single-cell Lio-ion batteries. Advanced Analogic Technologies also has developed a Li-ion/polymer battery charger IC that operates off both USB and AC adapter inputs.

According to David Brown, senior applications engineering manager at AAT, the unit simplifies design, decreases charging time and increases system reliability by integrating a charge reduction function that automatically compensates for voltage sags and throttles back the charge current depending upon how much current other loads on the device are consuming.

Plug-in portable power sources, or boosters, also have proved to be a factor in the portable device market, especially among business users and travelers. Big Wave Power, for example, has introduced the Titan, a portable power source that can recharge virtually any DC-powered portable electronic device. The company claims the Titan prolongs battery life up to 10 times over Li-ion-based rechargeable batteries, and can last more than 3,500 recharge cycles.

Turbo Charge has a new cell phone charger about the size of a lipstick case, gives cell phones as much as two hours of talk time or 40 hours of standby time and protects cell phone and PDA batteries from overload and other damage.

Lenmar Enterperises’ Mach 1 Lightning Speed Charger chargers two AA cells in eight minutes and four NiMH AA/AAA cells in 15 minutes.

Plug-in Cell Booster devices provide cell phones and other portable products with as much as 60 minutes of additional power if your phone’s battery unexpectedly goes dead.

Solar energy is a more obvious source of power. A new product from Soldius, a Dutch company, recharges cell phones and iPods directly in two to three hours. In other words, it doesn’t have to store solar energy in an internal battery and then use the battery to recharge a cell phone. Mysoldius, as the product is called, just has to be placed in direct sunlight. Soldius also offers a golf bag with integrated solar panels than can charge a mobile phone or other personal electronic devices. There are four golf bags in the line, ranging in price from $200 to $800.

Once you acquire the technology, solar power is free. The same is true with rechargeable batteries if you can find a public place, such as an airport, to recharge. Unlike solar power, micro fuel cells may be a little pricey, at least initially. But as Bradford points out, “Some people want access to power almost around the clock, but will everyone buy into fuel cells?”

NanMarkets’ analysis is mixed. It says traditional battery technologies are still the standard, especially lithium, and probably will be for many years. But it also projects a market for fuel cells worth $1.6 billion by 2010, jumping to $2.7 billion in 2012.

Some market analysts believe those numbers are low. Attendees at the Portable Power Developer’s Conference held in San Jose last year were told that product designers will not wait for the “ultimate” energy storage solution; it may never arrive. And even if an improved energy solution is introduced, the emphasis will always be on getting the maximum possible performance from the device, and that implies continued focus on developments in advanced power architectures, sophisticated power management and efficient energy utilization. V

By Ron Schneiderman
May/June 2006