Fast charging is a common feature of most modern smartphones. In a few more years, it may become a standard feature for electric vehicles too. Yet, asking a consumer how long it would take to charge their device will most likely result in a confused answer. Even tech-savvy engineers will find it more challenging to provide a consistent figure for charge times. Why is it so?
There are several parameters that impact total charge time. Some of them may be obvious. For example, charging the smartphone with a small AC adapter will make less current available to charging, so it will take longer to charge. Similarly, browsing the web while charging will divert precious electrons away from the charging process. Again, it becomes slower.
But the less obvious parameters relate to definitions. That’s right, definitions of what it means to say the battery is “full.” This post will shed some light on two such definitions.
For the purpose of this explanation, I will use the standard charging methodology called CC-CV (constant current, constant voltage). The charging current is constant until the battery reaches its maximum specified voltage (in this example, it is 4.35 V) at which point the charging circuitry reverses the order and fixes the voltage while letting the current decay to near zero. When the charging current becomes “sufficiently small,” the battery is then considered fully charged.
Therefore, our first definition relates to the meaning of “sufficiently small” and therefore, the meaning of 100% full. There is a misconception that the battery is “full” when its terminal voltage reaches a maximum specified voltage (e.g., 4.35 V). That is not correct. The battery is considered full when its charging current decays to a value below a pre-defined threshold. This threshold is called the termination current and is calculated relative to the charge capacity of the battery.
Let’s say, as an example, a battery can hold a charge capacity of 1,000 mAh. Some companies consider this battery full when its charging current decays to a value of 1,000/20 = 50 mA. This is called C/20 termination. Other companies establish a different threshold of C/10, which means the charge is considered complete when the charging current decays to a value of 1,000/5 = 200 mAh.
The figure below shows the charging current (in green) for an actual lithium-ion battery with a capacity of 3,300 mAh. The charging current displayed on the right axis remains constant for the first 49 minutes (that’s the constant current portion), and then it begins to decay (that’s the constant voltage portion). Note that the axis for the charging current is on a logarithmic scale, so the decay is exponential (not linear). The current reaches a value of C/5 (660 mA) after 68 minutes, and a value of C/20 (150 mA) 28 minutes later, or 96 minutes after the start of charge.
Hence the first observation: Set a lower threshold for the termination current and make your total charge time significantly faster. Now note that this only makes the “total” charge time faster because the device manufacturer defines a different value for “full.” It does not impact the charge time to 50% or 80% of full.
Of course, this now begs the question: Wouldn’t the device manufacturer who chooses to use a lower termination current end up adding more charge to the battery, and hence lasting a little longer for the day. Yes, that is true, and that leads us to the second definition.
Our second definition relates to the time when the smartphone lights up green and says “charge full.” In other words, this relates to what the smartphone “displays”, not what it really measures, but rather what it chooses to tell you as a consumer. And here, all device OEMs are complicit. They all, virtually without exception, choose to display 100% full at an earlier time before the termination current is reached. You must be scratching your head now and saying, “isn’t that a form of lying?” Well, it is a matter of perspective. The reality remains that virtually all smartphones will say 100% in the upper right hand corner of the displays before the charging current reaches its termination value.
To see this effect, let’s examine the figure again but now point our eyes to the blue and red curves corresponding to the axis on the left hand side. The blue curve is the true and actual charge value of the battery during the charging process. You will notice that the blue curve hits 100% when the termination current of C/20 is reached. In contrast, the red curve is what the smartphone actually displays on the front screen. The red curve says “100% full” much earlier, at about 65 minutes. At that moment in time, the battery is only about 95% full, but the smartphone takes a little liberty in rounding the value up to 100%. One can argue that the delta is really small, and for most consumers, they are happy to be at 80% or 90%. There is some truth to that. But now, as a consumer, you know that the value the smartphone displays is not really what it measures. If you really, really want to reach the true 100% full level, then keep your device connected to the charger for another 30-ish minutes.