Li-Ion Batteries Will Retain Dominance in the Portable Market

October 15, 2006 by Jeff Shepard

While the publicity over the Sony-related battery recalls has brought the potentially dangerous/unstable nature of Li-Ion battery technology to the public's attention, and may result in some economic setbacks in the battery, computer, and portable electronics industries in the short term, many experts and industry analysts are issuing reminders that the technology is not likely to be replaced or supplanted in the near future.

The reason for this is that alternative portable power supply technologies are not ready for commercial production and, more importantly, not yet competitive with Li-Ion batteries in terms of either cost or power efficiency/density. Consequently, as Li-Ion batteries are nearing their theoretical energy density limit, the battery industry is forced to focus much of its attention on improving manufacturing processes in order to improve safety. According to David Perlmutter, Senior VP and General Manager of Intel's Mobility Group, "Right now, the industry is working primarily on improving the manufacturing and reliability of traditional lithium-ion batteries."

There are some alternative technologies that may offer mild improvements in the areas of battery safety and comparable and/or improved power efficiency in the near future, but these have only limited applications. Valence Technologies' "nonvolatile phosphate-based Li-ion " technology eliminates the overheating problem but, since it operates at 3.2V, it would require a retrofitting of existing electronic equipment that utilize 3.6V batteries. The first drop-in laptop replacements of this approach are expected in 2007. A123Systems offers another phosphate-based system using nanoscale technology, but it is only going to be introduced into cell phones in 2007, with notebook computer workability not expected for a few years. Zinc Matrix is introducing a water-based (silver and zinc) chemistry that isn't flammable and has a longer running time than Li-ion, however, the batteries only last for 25 charges (compared to over 200 for modern batteries). The company is working toward developing the technology to the 100 charge level as it plans on introducing the system into laptops and cell phones in 2007.

As for long-term developments, MIT is experimenting with a technology that could result in the eventual replacement of batteries – MEMS-based gas turbine engines inside a silicon chip about the size of a quarter. Theoretically able to allow devices to run 10x longer than similarly-sized batteries, as well as allowing creating a smaller overall power source, the MIT researchers admit that they have not yet been able to integrate all of the different parts into a functioning end-product. Although a demo is expected within a year's time, it should take at least another three years before the technology could be adaptable to commercial production. Several sources are experimenting with hydrogen fuel cells, but the adaptation of the technology to portable applications is the farthest application (among many potentials) from feasible implementation. Toshiba, which recently issued one of the Sony-related recalls, unveiled a prototype laptop fuel cell battery for demonstration this week, but described the technology as being in its "infancy" and gave no indication of when it would be commercially available. The development of a fuel cell that could meet the power needs of a laptop computer, fit in the same space as a Li-ion battery, and be manufactured at a competitive cost (in comparison to a battery) is still several years away.