A look at UK innovations in the race to stretch mobile device durability.March 10, 2014
As mobile technology increasingly becomes the default mode of access to information and services, and for collecting real-time data right where the action is, one of the biggest challenges is how to keep devices running for longer. Typically the more intelligent the mobile device, the faster the battery drains – which in turn limits mobile technology’s potential.
In the UK, hi-tech innovators are approaching the problem from a number of different angles.
Intelligent fuel cells
Intelligent Energy (IE) has developed products that harness hydrogen in the form of small, replaceable fuel cells or cartridges. These enable more continuous use of mobile devices in areas where there is no main electricity source available for standard battery recharging.
IE’s background is in advanced energy technologies for the automotive industry, and alternative power sources for stationary structures such as cell phone towers. Its consumer electronics division makes scaled-down versions of these innovations for use with everyday gadgets.
The company’s first-generation fuel cell products use a metal hydride (a powder that stores hydrogen in its atomic structure) in a canister; hydrogen is released as needed, combining with air to create energy. The personal device, called Upp, provides 25 watt hours of charging capacity, which IE estimates allows five full charges or a week’s mobile use from a single cartridge. The product is designed in Loughborough in the UK and the cartridges are made in Scotland.
Upp can power any USB-compatible portable electronic device – from smart phones, feature phones, tablets, and e-readers, to portable gaming consoles, digital cameras, fans, and flashlights. As well as providing ‘clean’ energy, the fuel cells are intelligent - they come with an app (downloadable from the Apple App Store or Google Play) which conserves power wherever possible, allows users to monitor remaining capability, and can locate the nearest fuel cartridge exchange hub.
The product was designed initially for emerging markets such as Africa where mobile adoption is rapid, often bypassing fixed-line phones. “Upp is ideal for areas without a power grid or where supply isn’t reliable,” explains Amar Samra, managing director of IE’s Consumer Electronics business.
One of IE’s priorities has been to find an affordable solution, he adds. “In these markets the mobile device is often the primary channel for a whole range of activities, from general communication to financial transactions – so it’s vital, but there is great sensitivity to price where people may only be earning $10 a day.”
The basic proposition is cartridge exchange, and IE is pricing the cells so they work out at less than $5 a time. But IE’s aim is to develop innovative partnerships with telecoms operators, where the fuel cells are included with mobile services.
Upp was launched in Africa last November, in partnership with telecoms operator Etisalat, after a three-month trial in Nigeria where the product was well received, Samra says. Trials are currently underway in other markets including South Africa. Upp was introduced to the US market at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas January, through a retail partnership with Brookstone. Brookstone has hundreds of outlets across the US, including sites in airports – ideal for business executives travelling overseas. The European launch of Upp took place in February at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
In time, Samra expects the fuel-cell technology to become even more compact, eventually becoming embedded in the mobile devices themselves.
Converting natural energy
Another company championing new advances in mobile power is Nokia, the Finnish telecoms organization whose devices and services business is now being acquired by Microsoft. In the UK, Nokia Europe has been experimenting with a number of university research laboratory collaborations on alternative approaches to mobile charging.
The most extreme example involved a test to see whether lightning strikes could be channeled as a source of power. Last year, the UK’s University of Southampton succeeded in converting power from lab-generated lightning to charge a Nokia Lumia 925 handset. Using an alternating current, driven by a transformer, over 200,000 volts was sent across a 300mm gap – giving heat and light similar to that of a lightning bolt. The signal was channeled into a second controlling transformer and, incredibly, the Nokia circuitry managed to stabilize the incoming signal, allowing the battery to be charged.
“The experiment was really just to see whether it could be done,” explains Tom Messett, head of digital marketing and advocacy at Nokia Europe. “The trouble with harnessing natural weather events is that they don’t provide the continuous, reliable source you’d need.”
Pedal power & wireless charging
Previously Nokia has experimented with bicycle power for recharging phones, to enable users in regions such as Africa to upgrade from more basic phones that consume less energy. “The issue we experienced here was about achieving sufficient voltage and keeping it linear so you didn’t damage or overheat the phone,” Messett says. “But what the lightning experiment has shown us is that if you’re able to balance current inside the phone, you can use non-linear currents.”
Nokia has also toyed with solar charging, even developing handsets specifically designed to run on solar power – the idea being that devices would then never run out of charge. “But for higher-end smartphones challenges remain, and the unreliability of the weather is a sticking point,” Messett concedes. The tests concluded that solar power isn’t practical.
A more viable proposition for mobile energy top-up – though it wouldn’t work in a remote scenario because it requires a power source - is short-range wireless charging (‘inductive’ charging) through a pad on a desk, or built into seats, sofas or coffee tables. Here, an electromagnetic field transfers energy between two objects in close proximity. “The goal here is letting batteries last a bit longer (for example when you haven’t got your charger to hand) - so that you leave the office with a full battery, or can maintain charge via a GPS holder in the car,” Messett explains.
Other projects remain strictly under wraps, but one with potential is an initiative to harness graphene. Nokia’s Research Centre in Cambridge in the UK has gained access to generous EU funding as part of a collaboration with Cambridge University to drive innovation in this field. Graphene, considered a breakthrough new material, is a two-dimensional form of carbon. Derived from a one-atom thick layer of graphite, it is celebrated as being the strongest, lightest and thinnest material known to man. It is also bendable/stretchable and has exceptional mechanical, electronic, optical, thermal and chemical properties – and it can conduct electrons faster than silicon.
Although Nokia won’t disclose details of its work in this area, Professor Andrea Ferrari, director of Cambridge University’s Cambridge Graphene Centre and an expert in nanotechnology, indicates a number of exciting projects that are being developed from the material.
“Graphene has all sorts of potential applications,” he says. “In mobile devices it facilitates the development of bendable screens, flexible transistors and sensors of different kinds. It could be integrated in batteries to create flexible form-factors. The durability of batteries is another possibility, though graphene is not the only means of achieving more interesting performance.” (Energy – including batteries and super-capacitors - is one of the Centre’s areas of research; others are graphene production, high-frequency electronics, optoelectronics, and flexible and printable electronics.)
The UK is not alone in its ambitions to crack the next-generation mobile energy challenge, but its laboratories - as with their equivalents around the world - are hot on the trail of a definitive long-term solution.
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