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Mobile Power Comes of Age

The new Google Nexis One. (Image credit: Google)

As anyone who's ever used an electronic device knows, today's batteriesleave a lot to be desired. But that could soon change. Scientists are developing next-generation technologies to make power packs smaller, longer lasting and more compatible with today's mobilelifestyle.

Future technologies include miniaturized fuel cells and batteries, solar-energy harvesting, and wireless chargers.

Here's a sneak peek at next-gen battery technologies you can expect to see over the next five to 10 years.

Mini Power

Those relatively expensive AA and AAA batteries that digital cameras just seem to eat up could become a thing of the past. Thinergy – an energy storage device that's about the size of a postage stamp – promises to last the life of the electronicdevice it powers.

"We have the world's most powerful battery for its size," said Timothy Bradow, VP Technical Marketing, Sales & Business Developmentat Infinite Power Solutions, Thinergy's maker.

Based on technology licensed from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the battery uses lithium chemistry similar to the battery in an iPhone. Thedifference is the substance that carries the electric charge, called the electrolyte, which sits between the battery's two electrodes.

Instead of a polymer electrolyte, Thinergy uses a proprietary solid-state one that has no movable parts, which is partly responsible for its small form factor.

Thinergy cells are about 4 volts, recharge in minutes and can be cycled (run down to zero) up to hundreds of thousands of times – orders of magnitude higher than conventional batteries, Bradow said.

While powerful, these batteries do not pack enough punch to power your cell phone or laptop. Instead, they're geared toward replacing coincell, AA and AAA batteries.

Launched in June 2009, Thinergy cells are distributed through Arrow Electronics mainly for electronics manufacturers to design into their products and are not yet available for consumers.

Fuel cells

Fuel cells are also being miniaturized to power consumer electronics.Fuel cells and batteries are similar in that they produce electricity through a chemical reaction. However, fuel for batteries is stored internally – once it's used up the battery is either "dead" or needs to be recharged – whereas fuel cells store their fuel externally in a separate container, allowing it to be simply replaced.

While most fuel cells are the size of a traditional car battery, miniature ones are now being developed that are small enough to "fit in the palm of your hand," Peng Lim, chairman and CEO at MTI MicroFuel Cells, told TechNewsDaily.

Called Mobion, the fuel cell chip uses methanol as a fuel and could power your electronic devices for an average of eight to 10 hours compared to a typical lithium-based battery that lasts only two to threehours, Lim said.

For some applications, at least for now, these fuel cells will need the help of a small battery to provide small bursts of power such as is needed for a camera flash, Lim said. "Fuel cells are good at stamina but not good at bursts [of power]."

In a camera flash, the battery plays a small part in powering the device, so it can be much smaller.

The first Mobion product to hit the market at the end of 2008 was a prototype charger with a USB interface to connect with a range of personal electronics. The charger was designed to charge a cell phone over 10 times.

Prototypes of a cellphone as well as a digital camera with the Mobion chip have been made. Lim said he expects these fuel cells to be available in the next five to 10 years.

Take Charge

But consumer gadget power is not just about batteries. New chargers are also afoot to replace those clunky wires and adaptors. These new chargers sidestep the need for an outlet, bringing mobility to these devices. They're also addressing the inconvenience and expense of purchasing a new charger every time you buy a new electronic gadget.

According to some estimates, there are about 15 billion chargers in the world – that's almost three for every living human being.

"It's insane," said David Pierce, CEO at Regen Living, a company thathas developed a solar-powered charger.

Sold under the name ReNu, Regen's solar-powered energy panel is made up of monocrystalline silicon solar cells, which, when exposed to the sun, generate and store energy.

The resulting energy could charge up an iPhoneor iPod Touch in the same amount of time as a wall outlet, Pierce said.  The device should be available in June of this year for $199.

Wireless Charging

Renewable energy is not the only new trend in charging devices. Wireless is also taking hold. Chargers by Powermat use so-called electromagnetic induction to power a range of electronic devices. The devices have to be used with Powermat-compatible cases or "jackets," butthere's no need for wires or special adaptors.

Electromagnetic induction – a phenomenon discovered by English scientist Michael Faraday – essentially uses a changing magnetic field to create electric power. In this case, the Powermat creates a changing magnetic field, which is converted to electric power by receivers attached to the device being charged. These mats are available for about$99.

So-called energy harvesting – grabbing power from an external source such as the sun – could also allow people to one day charge their electronic devices on the go.

The simplest example is a typical desktop calculator that relies on asmall solarstrip for power, said Bradow of Infinite Power Solutions.

Here, the solar strip works alone to power the calculator, but futureapplications would combine energy harvesting solar cells with an energy storage device such as a battery.