21Apr 2017

T’is the season of new smartphone releases. The Samsung S8 is here and the drums are beating loud ahead of the much anticipated Apple iPhone 8 (or Edition, or whatever they will call it).

These devices and their makers clearly tout their performance features: faster processors, better camera, pretty displays, more memory….etc. But for this year and possibly for many years to come, the #1 feature is look and feel, otherwise known as industrial design, or just plain ID.

Industrial design includes how the device feels in the hand and eliminating or at least reducing the bezel to make the display reach out to the edges. It also includes thickness and profile, often some type of a rounded design that is comfortable in the palm. Invisible to the consumer are the havoc that these aesthetic features wreak on the battery. For example, thin smartphones mean thinner batteries; I mean really thin (less than 3 mm). Round profiles can mean non-planar batteries to maximize space utilization inside the smartphone. Are these batteries difficult and expensive to make? Absolutely. Given that the battery consumes between ½ to ⅔ of the overall space inside the smartphone, pushing the industrial design means serious business as far as the battery is concerned. Today’s post shows how your choice of a smartphone as a consumer impacts the battery and its underlying design.

First, and above all, every consumer wants his or her smartphone to last at least a full day. Now the definition of a “full day” is subjective, but there is broad consensus that it translates to a battery capacity of at least 3,000 mAh, preferably near 3,500 mAh for the top of the line smartphones. Indeed, if we examine the average capacity in smartphones over the past 5 years, we see that it has grown at about 8% annually. A battery in a 2017 smartphone contains about 40 – 50% more capacity (mAh) than it did in 2012.

Capacity

The smartphones are also getting thinner, so lesser volume available for the battery. The chart below shows the thickness of iPhones (in orange) and Samsung Galaxy line (in blue) over the past few years. The trend is clear!

Capacity is increasing. Volume is decreasing. That’s more energy in a smaller volume. In other words, the energy density is rising rapidly thus creating serious headaches because of various implications to safety and quality as well as cost.

If you are a battery vendor and need to increase energy density, what can you do? First, you can pack more material inside the battery to store more of the lithium ions. Second, you can increase the voltage. If you recall from your high-school physics, electrical energy is the product of electrical charge × voltage. More voltage translates to more energy. If we look at the maximum voltage of batteries that have been shipping commercially in the past few years, we immediately notice that the voltage has risen from 4.20 V to 4.40 V for one individual cell. We even see prototypes today at 4.45 V and above. The chart below shows that going from 4.20 V to 4.40 V provides an additional 20% in energy, or the equivalent of four battery generations.

volts

The challenge is that at these elevated cell voltages there is a heightened risk of lithium plating. Operating at 4.40 V is far from obvious or trivial. The margin of error is extremely small at these voltage levels. Manufacturing defects or design fluctuations are sufficient to cause the formation of lithium metal plating thus risking a potential battery fire.

So when you choose your next smartphone, be it a Samsung, Apple or any other brand, keep in mind how your choice as a consumer drives the OEM and in turn it drives the battery technology. The smartphone and its battery are ultimately the responsibility of the OEM, but an informed consumer will make the right and safe choice.