Mad Dog 21/21: Is It Good For The Juice?
June 3, 2013 Hesh Wiener
Boeing is flying 787 Dreamliners to customers again. The airplanes, which each use two large lithium-ion batteries, were grounded in mid-January because their batteries were dangerously overheating. Battery-powered laptops have been known to catch fire and so, too, have mobile phones, but they still use lithium-ion battery technology. So far, there have been no reported fires in the lithium-ion earpiece batteries of Google Glass gadgets. But even if some people had their hair set afire by a failing Glass, potentially combustible lithium-ion-based energy storage will be the portable power source of choice until a superior successor becomes available.
The frailty of computer clients has become a significant factor in the design of the best server-side software in glass houses and in the cloud. The combination of robust applications on the server side and elaborate presentation layer technology on the client side can increase the burden on networks by boosting data volume and supporting usage scenarios that require very fast interactions. When vastly expanded back-end capabilities are factored in, as they are in so many cases, the resiliency that has been at the heart of the Internet since its inception is elevated to a substantially higher orbital plane. And what has become expected in a pocket phone can no longer be denied to users of other machines, from cars that typically carry more than a dozen cooperating computers to aircraft that depend on information technology for their core operations, safety, liaison powers, and the provision of comfort and entertainment.
It is no wonder reliable electric power sources lie at the heart of so many things. And, because many of those things must be moved (or, in the case of transportation machines, be able to move themselves and their loads), the power sources have to be as light, strong, and efficient as possible. Actually, they have to be efficient in a couple ways. There is one kind of efficiency often called energy density, which means the capability of a cubic meter or a kilogram of the power storage device, typically a battery but sometimes a capacitor and possibly something else. There is also a key characteristic describing the devices ability to deliver a surge of current, an aspect of batteries anyone with an old and temperamental car thinks about on a frigid winter morning that is called power density.
Machines that use electric power to get started, after which they replenish their power reservoirs and produce additional juice for various purposes, have to be able to deliver plenty of energy for relatively short periods of time. By contrast, machines that use and never regenerate power, such as phones that depend on external chargers to restore their vitality, usually don’t need to draw a lot of current at any one time but need to have long lasting capacity so they can keep the phone alive for a day when it is used and a week or longer when it is sitting idle. Laptop computers, particularly ones with mechanical disk drives, have some of the characteristics of each: they use a lot of juice when they first boot up but then engage in a lot of power management tricks to keep current down to a trickle and longevity at its max.
Google Glass and, I will guess, the many other emerging and forthcoming super-portable, wearable client devices that seem likely to be the electronic hallmarks of this decade, may be the kind of gadget that serves as a pioneering testbed for new energy storage technologies. Lithium-ion batteries (in their many chemical variations) are pretty light, pack a lot of punch for their size, have good survival characteristics and are quite affordable. Unfortunately, lithium has a jones for oxygen and when they have a party you don’t want them dancing on a piece of heat conducing metal or even some plastic that’s draped over your ear and part of a physical assembly that is on a close-to-intimate basis with at least one of your eyes. A Glass that goes combustible could be as dangerous for it wearer as a Dreamliner getting the electrical equivalent of Crohn’s and making massive batteries incandescent.
The risks, in case after case, seem to be taken as an aspect of battery technology that is unpleasant but nevertheless the best available option once all the tradeoffs are evaluated. Intrepid engineers are not only hoping to make cars and airplanes that store ever more electric power and client devices that carry some of the most exotic batteries but also to put smart, talkative sensor systems into little capsules that people can swallow or that they can have inserted into their bodies. While some of these in-body gadgets will only have to store a small amount of power because they can be kept alive by induced currents, many of them will need to be left in medical patients for quite a while and allowed to work as the patient goes on with life. Like the power sources in heart pacemakers, such batteries are designed to never catch on fire but they still may have other failure modes that discomfort if not endanger the end user.
Lots of technologists are aware that we need something, and probably many things, that are better at storing and delivering electrical energy than current batteries and capacitors. There have been recent reports of improved battery systems that take advantage of nanotechnology and other miniaturized structures. There are also scientists experimenting with different materials that might do a better job than the lithium-ion, nickel-based or lead-based batteries used in machines as tiny as hearing aids and as large as emergency power generation facilities.
But in the case of mobile computing clients, the business environment has some characteristics that are truly unique. For starters, mobile phones, computing tablets, and other claptrap like Google Glass end up selling by the millions . . . until they sell by the billions. That makes for a lot of batteries, a lot of revenue, and a lot of recycling and disposal headaches. It also creates an obvious need for pretty high safety standards. The idea of a Google Glass giving a user the temple of doom is pretty dramatic. So, too, is the possibility that a phone might catch fire while in a user’s trouser pocket, cooking up a couple prairie oysters for cannibals before the victim can drop trou.
But just as a client meltdown can be pretty dramatic, so, too, can be a server meltdown or, worse, a corporate business meltdown that is caused by a fickle client base undertaking a mass migration. Banks, conservative institutions in some ways, have grown to realize that free, rich, mobile client services are now a do-or-die part of personal and commercial accounts. Individuals and small businesses love photo deposit applications and no bank that wants to keep its retail trade alive can ignore the public clamor for this sort of app. Mortgage lenders have married financial calculations to credit facilities to maps and property databases, replacing (organized) house hunters’ notepads with smartphone and tablet apps.
Supermarkets not only offer superb phone apps that help customers create shopping lists, they tie the shopping and pricing data to store layouts and give customers using their phone shopping list the shortest possible path from parking lot to checkout.
At checkout, more phones are packing near-field communications (NFC) Google Wallet technology, but rollout has not been as swift as it could be. Marketing folk in markets, at banks, and in the credit processing game seem to be having a tough time getting this stuff to take off. They haven’t figured out that asking an occasional security question on the user’s phone at checkout could make Wallet into a recognizably superior alternative to ordinary credit cards, reducing costs and thereby giving all the parties in the transaction chain some more money to fight over. But that will come, if not from Google and its friends then from Apple or Amazon some other company that spots the need to not replace a traditional wallet with an electronic one but to make a really better wallet.
Meanwhile, software companies and user organizations that want to make mobile client apps emit fiscal pheromones have got to base their plans on the overwhelming likelihood clients will run out of power, lose connectivity, get dropped, be chewed by dogs, or be wet by infants just when the shopping was getting good. Of these, the most common one that seems relatively easy to address is the battery problem. It is so widespread because the companies that make smartphones have done a terrible job of building ample power storage capacity into their devices. When they shrink electronics, which happens all the time, the phone makers rush to reduce the thickness and weight of their products when the might try using a bit of the newly available volume to house a larger battery.
But the phone companies have been a bit stupid about his, and the upshot, as least in the iPhone world, is that Mophie has gotten rich. Mophie, for the few people who haven’t heard the name, is a brand of phone case that includes a battery. A typical Mophie adds as much power as the iPhone it carries has in its built-in battery pack . . . or more. It means that users who have their phones on a lot draining power to keep screens lit can, with a Mophie, get through a whole day or more without a recharge. The same goes for incessant mobile talkers, whose phones usually go dark during calls but still use a lot of power if they have to punch signal through walls or electronically noisy environments.
The Mophie factor is one reason Glass can get by with a smaller, lighter battery than a phone. The display in Glass is tiny, so it uses a lot less power than a phone screen. And, so far at least, Glass wants to be in a Wi-Fi network, and that, generally speaking, uses less electricity than a mobile phone radio, particularly the kind of radio in LTE phone, a radio that probably wants a Mophie and a half.
Meanwhile, back at the server farm, even user organizations on modest budgets are going to be pumping up their apps and storing lots more user data to they can further particularize the customers’ app experience. Geolocation is only a starter these days. Software that incorporates records of customers’ histories and preferences combined with Watsonic guesswork technology is going to separate the sheep from the goats, and possibly from the electric sheep, too.