New Technologies Show Hope, but Still in the Lab
The chemical world of battery development has a set of challenges different to those faced in chipsets, screens and the surrounding hardware. Battery densities have moved ahead in the past decade, but haven’t kept pace with Moore’s Law of doubling components — the enabling technologies of mobility have become smaller, cheaper and more capable over the past five years, pulling well ahead of their power supply.
If mobile computing power has doubled every 18 months or so, battery capacity certainly hasn’t. This disparity has handicapped hardware innovation and product design, particularly in the market for wearables. CCS Insight has eagerly looked at several new battery technologies that hope to solve this problem, but most continue to be works in progress, highlighting the difficulties in bringing safe, reliable and affordable new power sources to market.
Two years ago, for example, Korean chemical company LG Chem announced a new, pioneering series of batteries. The innovation concerned flexibility in shapes and sizes, with concepts like smaller batteries that are able to be stacked like Lego bricks to fill otherwise unused spaces in smart devices. LG Chem also introduced a curved battery designed specifically for products with bowed screens, such as watches. Perhaps most interesting was the company’s cable battery, a waterproof model with a wire-like form for use in wearables such as smart necklaces and eyeglasses.
The flexibility of such battery shapes should enable some give in product design — when available. These concepts still aren’t official products even though LG Chem previously stated that its curved battery was in mass production and promised its cable model in “upcoming years”. Optimistic timing scenarios often don’t apply to battery revolutions.
A year ago we took note of California-based battery start-up Imprint Energy, developing a zinc-based, bendable, rechargeable battery technology it calls ZincPoly. These are manufactured on sheets by industrial screen printers to enable highly customized batteries for very specific product designs. There’s significant market potential for such a flexible battery, and the concept could lead to new wearable and connected products. But there’s been little official news for almost a year.
This month, researchers at Arizona State University unveiled a kirigami-inspired flexible, foldable and stretchable battery that its makers claim will have a substantial effect on the wearables business. This technology would allow batteries to be embedded into flexible items like armbands and footwear. The kirigami batteries use a zig-zag pattern of small lithium ion batteries and components that are already mass-produced and readily available, meaning the technology could theoretically be scaled quickly.
CCS Insight believes that battery technology is one of the most significant challenges in creating appealing wearable products. Along with flexible screen technology, batteries are a factor limiting more-innovative and fashionable designs that can be worn comfortably for long periods of time and used without highly frequent charging. We believe that several more years of development will be required to create truly flexible screens and batteries offering multi-day life and which are robust enough to cope with the rigours of wearables — a fact that will continue to weigh on our forecasts.
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