Batteries Fail to Keep Pace With Technology


Batteries, the technology that time forgot, should have disappeared alongside the wood-paneled station wagon.

The sealed chemical cocktails we use to power computers, boomboxes 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, such as 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, Md. “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 back to 1859, when the first lead acid battery was manufactured in France.


The same basic energy storage concept still fuels the 4 billion disposable batteries sold each year in the United States.

The name of No. 3 battery seller Rayovac Corp. dates back to the 1930s, when radio technology got a boost from the introduction of vacuum tubes, a 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% 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 are 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 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 such as 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?’” Donskoy said. “There’s a big trade-off between size, power consumption and cost.”

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 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 about four hours.

When more powerful lithium-ion batteries emerged in the late ‘90s, the breakthrough allowed cell phones to shrink to shirt-pocket size. Lithium cells fueled the release of hand-held computers, which could run for several hours and even sport backlighted color screens.

Since then, battery science has reached a plateau, scientists said.

“We’re starting to approach the engineering limits of that chemistry,” Sadoway said, referring to the lithium-ion cell.


Another problem with batteries is environmental.

Of the billions sold each year, most wind up in landfills and incinerators, where their toxic contents--mercury, cadmium, zinc, nickel and manganese among them--leach into the air and ground water, said Allen Hershkowitz of the National Resources Defense Council.

While chemists and engineers struggle to eke out a little more power, consumers locked into buying and discarding batteries wonder whether there’s a conspiracy. Do manufacturers refuse to make a better battery?

“It’s not economic for battery manufacturers to develop new technology,” said Bruce Rittenhouse, president of Electronic Automation Inc., a Grand Rapids, Mich., company that repairs industrial electronics. “Why do it? They want to sell you batteries every month, not every six years.”


Lew Urry, a scientist with Energizer Holdings Inc., scoffs at that notion. With Energizer and its archrival Duracell leapfrogging each other, a slowdown in innovation gives the other company powerful boasting rights.

“You can’t afford to let that happen,” said Urry, 76, who helped invent Eveready’s first alkaline battery, which hit store shelves in 1958.