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Wed, Mar 06, 2002 - Page 19 News List

Limitations of batteries hindering high-tech advances

While chip speeds double every 18 months, a 5 percent improvement is all batteries can muster every two years


Lew Urry holds up an original alkaline battery that was marketed in 1958, left, and a current battery in Westlake, Ohio. Urry, 76, who still works for Energizer Holdings Inc, developed the first commercially viable alkaline battery.


Batteries, the technology that time forgot, should have disappeared alongside 8-track tapes.

The sealed chemical cocktails we use to power computers, boom boxes and mobile phones are little changed since the 1950s.

For decades, electronics designers have struggled to tailor the latest concoction in silicon chips and integrated circuits to the power limitations of the lowly battery.

"They're holding us back big time," said Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future. Had batteries advanced at the pace of the computer processor, "a double-A cell would contain more energy than a tactical nuke."

Other than a few devices like weak solar cells and mechanical cranking devices, there isn't an alternate portable power source. Batteries are it.

"There's not much you can do about it," said Boris Donskoy, who designs portable electronic instruments for InHand Electronics Inc, of Rockville, Maryland "There are basic limitations in physics."

Researchers talk of batteries being replaced at some point by portable fuel cells and tiny jet engines -- or a new battery made of a better combination of chemicals. But no one can say when.

Until then, we're stuck with a power source whose origins date to 1859, when the first lead acid battery was made in France.

The same basic energy storage concept still fuels the four billion disposable batteries sold each year in the US. And vestiges of bygone days infuse the industry vernacular.

The name of No. 3 US battery seller Rayovac Corp dates to the 1930s, when radio technology got a boost from the onset of vacuum tubes -- an anachronistic technology replaced long ago by the transistor.

Rayovac engineer Jim Pilarzyk said his industry has no hope of keeping up with fast-morphing computer processors, which double in speed and halve in size every 18 months.

A 5 percent improvement in power capacity every two years is about the best battery scientists can manage, he said.

"The battery industry is somewhat limited," Pilarzyk said. "They're analog devices in a digital world."

For all their shortcomings, comparing batteries with computers isn't fair.

Batteries' roots lie in chemists' beakers. Computer speed is pushed by advances in manufacturing, and the ability to make circuits and transistors smaller and smaller.

"A battery isn't a microprocessor," said Professor Donald Sadoway, a battery researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It's a chemical device. It observes different scaling laws."

For designers of portable electronics, who yearn to shrink their gadgets and add gobs of features, battery power is the choke point that stunts their ambitions.

"The last 20 years have been aimed at designing around the limitations of batteries," Saffo said.

If the device needs to be small, it won't run long. If it needs to run long, it can't be small -- or have power-guzzling add-ons like a fast processor, DVD drive, audio or a color display.

"When I want to design something, my first question is, `How much power does it consume?' There's a big trade-off between size, power consumption and cost," Donskoy said.

The thirst for portable power is relentless. As soon as a better battery emerges, designers quickly respond with new gadgets that push the cells to their furthest limits.

In the early 1990s, laptop computers were made possible by rechargeable nickel metal hydride and nickel cadmium batteries, which gave portables an operating life of four hours or so.

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