Why More Money Could Mean Your Mobile Phone’s Battery Will Keep On Sucking

Mobile phone batteryAn iPhone X is more than 20 times as powerful as the first model. However, in some ways, it’s almost less mobile than its ancestor. Apple’s battery problems have been making front page news, and led the company to issue what I would categorise as a formal apology.

However, it is far from the only phone maker to have battery issues. Most people know the feeling of manically searching for outlets to feed a power-ravenous mobile. Going more than 24 hours between having to charge would likely put you in the minority. It is such a wide-spread issue that some telecoms have published guides that include advice on how to extend battery lifetime.

It begs the question: do mobile phone batteries today suck? Both literally with their power consumption and figuratively speaking in relation to their design.

Many seem to be of that opinion. However, my short answer is: both yes and no. And contrary to what you may think, the money currently pouring into battery technology could actually keep us at that undecided status quo rather than make things significantly better.

Many new ways being sought

To stay with the iPhone, it is in some ways remarkable that it does not run out of juice in a matter of minutes. Over the years, an impressive amount of processor power has been added to the series. If the first iPhone came head-to-head with a game like Candy Crush, it would likely look at it with horror and shake its head in defeat.

Not only are processors explosively quicker and more capable, but they also use way less energy.

However, while processing power has been growing rapidly, batteries have been getting better at a more pedestrian pace.

There is a lot of research going into changing this fact through developing new battery types.

For example, at University of Cambridge, UK, where scientists have been making breakthrough advances to a "lithium-air" battery. It supposedly has a capacity that is ten times that of today's lithium-ion technology. In Asia, a group at Singapore University have been developing a hybrid, lithium-based flow-battery. At Imperial College in London, Dr Emile Greenhalgh has been working on a way to get completely rid of batteries, using structural materials for energy storage.

Why more money could be a problem

These are just a few of the technologies that are being pursued.

At the same time, a lot of money is being invested in energy storage technologies, like batteries. For example, VC funding more than doubled between 2016 and 2017; Battery Ventures just raised a cool $1 billion for two new funds and the car industry looks to invest a head-spinning $90 billion in electric vehicles over the coming years.

 You would think that that would be great news for the scientists mentioned above, but that is not necessarily the case.

As reported in the MIT Technology Review, of the more than $4 billion that has been invested in the space, start-ups developing “next-generation” batteries— a different way of referring to any solution that is not lithium-ion—averaged just $40 million in funding over eight years.

The situation is the same when looking at battery production. Tesla’s new Gigafactory, which will produce lithium-ion batteries, costs around $5 billion to build. That illustrates a colossal investment gap that is between hard and impossible for new battery technologies to overcome.

“It will cost you $500 million to set up a small manufacturing line and do all the minutiae of research you need to do to make the product,” Gerd Ceder, a professor of materials science at the University of California, Berkeley, told MIT Technology Review.

Locked into below-exponential growth

This all leads me back to whether batteries for mobile phones will improve, and why my answer was both yes and no.

The reason is that while the money flowing into battery development and manufacturing will invariably create efficiencies and improve capacity, so much of the money is locked into lithium-ion technology that it could end up getting in the way of rapid, ground-breaking advances.

Put in a slightly different way, the continued growth of the lithium-ion ecosystem at an accelerating rate and economy of scale is likely to increasingly tie the car, energy storage, and technology industries to that battery technology. It becomes the energy platform in a way that is similar to iOS and Android’s position in the smartphone market.

As a result, phone batteries – and all other kinds of batteries – could, in some ways, keep on sucking for some time to come.