A look inside the world of batteries

14Nov 2018

Geoffrey Fowler at the Washington Post recently published an article observing that phone battery life is getting worse. I enjoyed my conversations with Geoffrey as he researched the topic. But why is the phone battery life getting worse? Why are batteries not keeping up with the new crop of smartphones? 

Like so many things in life, it is all about energy balance. Our doctors tell us that we need to balance our calories: Calories we eat versus the calories we expand on exercise. And so the smartphone needs to balance its energy stored in the battery versus the energy it spends on use. So I distill this to two simple questions on energy demand and supply:

  1. Why is the energy demand growing with increased use of our smartphones?
  2. Why can’t we have a bigger battery to supply our growing energy needs in a smartphone?

So let’s tackle the first question by examining the sources that drive energy consumption in a smartphone. There are three parts in your smartphone that are energy hogs:

  • Your screen….ok, I am sure you all know that ;
  • Your processor….some of you probably know that too ;
  • Your radios. Not your FM radio! Radios means the cellular connection, WiFi connection, bluetooth, GPS….anything that communicates with the outside world using radio waves.

Energy consumption for each of these parts depends on the nature of the hardware and you, the user — that’s the length of time you spend on the device. 

The energy used by a screen is quite large, even with the new OLED screens. Screens are getting a bigger numbers of pixels. Each pixel consumes energy. More pixels means more energy.  Every time you turn the screen on, it’s more energy that the battery has to supply.  And that adds up rapidly. 

If you follow various chatrooms, you probably know that “screen time”, meaning the total amount of available battery time with your screen on, is probably about 6 hours, give or take – regardless of what the smartphone maker advertises about all day use or more.

Next is the processor. Fortunately, that piece of hardware used to be a major energy hog but with the new generation of processors from Qualcomm or Apple or Samsung, they have become quite efficient. How much efficient? About twice more efficient than the previous generations from a few years back. All good news, right? well, not quite.

You see, processors have become efficient indeed, but now they are running a lot more frequently than they ever did. Think about an SUV parked in the garage versus a Honda Civic used for Ubering. Which one uses more energy?

A few years ago, we used our smartphones for texting and emailing….now, we stream videos. So while these processors are efficient, they are being taxed by video and social media. Net net, they are consuming more energy from the battery. How can you tell? watch how hot your smartphone becomes when you stream videos or take 4k movies on your device. That’s your processor getting hot.

Let’s talk now about radios. That’s a growing problem for the battery, so much that carriers like AT&T and Verizon in the US, or DoCoMo in Japan are really worried about it.

On one hand, carriers love that you use more and more data…that’s how they make money. But data use means your cellular connection is on, a lot more than before. 

But you say wait, isn’t 5G cellular connection better than LTE? Think of 5G as adding more lanes on the internet superhighway as compared to LTE. It means more cars, a lot more cars, will use the highway. It means more energy will be consumed. And the battery needs to supply this energy.

The FCC is just auctioning a new range of frequencies between 24 GHz and 47 GHz for the future 5G spectrum. By comparison, LTE runs at frequencies between 0.5 GHz and 2 GHz. Why is this important? Energy use goes up with frequency. So by going to the new 5G frequency, energy consumption will grow with it, worsening the burden on the battery. In other words, the future will tax the battery even more!

Bottom line: our smartphones and our user behavior mean our appetite for more energy will continue to grow.

Now we can tackle the second question: Why can’t the device manufacturer put a bigger battery in the smartphone? 

It is simple: Bigger battery capacity means a physically bigger battery. Batteries are improving so slowly such that the only way to give users more battery capacity is by making the device larger or thicker. The recent iPhone XS, XR and XS Max show a clear trend to making larger devices that can hold larger batteries.

Will that be enough for the future? not really. Smartphone sizes can’t get any bigger. At 6 in or greater screen sizes, they are already too large to hold in one hand. They may get a little thicker but not by much. Our human hands determine the optimal physical form for a smartphone.

So what gives? I don’t know yet, but most likely, our behavior and expectations. It is quite likely that users may charge their smartphones more frequently in one day…perhaps charge twice instead of once. Some users might be happy with fewer pixels in their devices. Others may turn off their Facebook and social media apps. 

Regardless of how we adapt to the future of smartphones, the battery will continue to be the weakest link, and the one in most need for innovation.

31Oct 2018

The break I took from writing is over. I hope many of the readers took the time to read, re-read and digest the insight I shared in my earlier blogs. 

My return theme is around battery safety.  Since 2016, when the Samsung Note 7 became headline news, there have been countless reports of battery safety problems, several of them with catastrophic outcomes. As ominous as they are, these events are covered on the second page, not the first page. But that should not offer any of us any peace of mind….as the old saying goes “where there is smoke, there is fire.”

The Washington Post and other media outlets reported today that Lime, the company that is deploying thousands of electric scooters on US streets, has recalled some of its scooters because of the risk of fire in their batteries. The company, in a statement, admitted that a “manufacturing defect” may result in the “battery smoldering.” Indeed, on August 27, a Lime scooter caused a fire at the company’s Lake Tahoe facility.

Lime said that the problem is rare, with only 0.01 percent of its fleet of scooters recalled. The fact is that 0.01 percent is not a small number when it comes to battery safety. For the Samsung Note 7, that figure was less than half….yet, it was not pretty. 

The Lime scooter story is not the only one that highlights the rising safety risks of lithium-ion batteries. On June 22 of this year, Nazrin Hassan, CEO of Malaysian tech company Cradle Fund died at the hands of his smartphone which allegedly exploded in his bedroom as he slept nearby. Hassan’s brother-in-law said that he had two smartphones, a Blackberry and a Huawei. They did not know which one exploded. 

These are just two recent examples where battery safety caused or risked causing a tragic and catastrophic outcome. A web search for “lithium-ion battery fire” returns over 21 million entries. So if battery fire risks are so real and increasingly common, why are we not taking this issue more seriously?

The coming year will witness the deployment of 5G wireless network. It is an amazing new evolution in how we communicate via wireless devices. But 5G will also place a severe burden on the battery. We are already testing new generations of lithium-ion cells with terminal voltage of 4.45 V. To put in perspective, the battery voltage used to be 4.2 V only a few years ago. The increase in battery voltage has erased any safety margin that was built in the older generations of batteries. 

Electric vehicles are growing in numbers. The Tesla model 3 was ranked among the best selling sedans in North America this summer. More auto manufacturers are introducing more electric models on our streets. It is a great evolution towards green transportation. But how will we react to battery fires in vehicles?

Statistically speaking, battery events occur at the rate of about 10 to 100 failures for every one million devices (in technical lingo, 10 to 100 ppm). This may sound like a small numerical figure, but when multiplied with the billions of devices that use batteries, the number of safety problems becomes very troubling.  Yet, there are technologies that can reduce this figure by a factor of 100 (down to parts per billion or even lower). It’s time that the battery safety is taken far more seriously.

17May 2018

I googled the question “ should I charge my phone to 100”. Google returned 467 million results. From folks offering opinions on “how to properly charge” to others calling on “science”, there seems no obvious consensus in the media. Yet,  unlike views on more socially charged topics, this question ought to be a lot simpler and ought to have a clear cut answer. Let’s explore.

I start with an easy experiment. Take two batteries. Charge one of them continuously to 100% and discharge it back to zero. Repeat. Take the second battery and charge it only to 90%. Discharge it. Repeat. Now compare the two batteries.  Are there differences? the answer is yes, there is difference. The battery that was charged to 100% will age considerably faster. 

What do I mean by aging? The technical term is “cycle life.” In practice, it means that the battery charged to 100% will lose its ability to store electric charge faster than the other battery. The difference between the two batteries can vary between 100 and 300 charge cycles.

So is that good? Well, it depends on what your use is. The definition of “good” is relative.

For a smartphone, my answer is “I really don’t care.” 

For an electric vehicle, my answer is “yes, it is better, but may be only marginally.”

For energy storage batteries used by electric utilities, my answer is “yes, absolutely.”

Now, let’s dive into the details.

A smartphone battery usually lives about 500 to 800 cycles. By cycles, I mean the number of times you will be able to charge it (to 100%) and discharge it before it becomes old and useless. Some smartphone manufacturers do better than others. Apple’s and Samsung’s batteries tend to be closer to 500 cycles. Others like LG, Sony and Huawei tend to be closer to 800 cycles. 

Let’s convert cycles to real-life years. Most smartphones are charged once a day. So 800 cycles is about 2 years of use before your battery becomes old. That corresponds well with the average time for consumers to upgrade. But wait, you might say you plan to keep your smartphone for longer than 2 years. What should you do?

Naturally, one option is to spend $30 to $50 once your battery is depleted and get your phone serviced after 2 years. The other option is to charge your phone to only 80% or 90% instead of 100%. That exercise will probably get you an extra year of usage.

But that is not the only way to get more longevity. You probably don’t know that if you use a small AC adapter instead of a bigger one, you will probably get the same benefit. For this method, look for an AC adapter that is rated 5 Watts, or use the USB port in your PC to charge you handset. And that applies to iPhones or Android phones. What do you give up? You are giving up fast charging. If you charge your handset overnight, then you really don’t care.

A self-serving plug for Qnovo: Smartphones with intelligent charging algorithms will take care of longevity issues for you so you really don’t have to think about this question and its answer. 

Now, let’s talk about electric vehicles. Should you top off the battery in your electric vehicle (EV)? First, it is important to know that EV manufacturers (from GM and Tesla to Nissan and VW) already limit the charging of the car battery to somewhere near 80%. The 100% that you read in your dashboard is actually 80% of the what the battery is rated for. That figure usually is sufficient to meet the warranty terms of the vehicle, often 100,000 miles or 10 years.

If you are leasing your car, then you really don’t care. Your lease will expire long before any meaningful battery aging sets in. But if you purchased your EV and plan to keep for a long time, then you may have an incentive to not top off your battery.

But wait, that is also not the only way to get more longevity. Every time you use a supercharger or DC fast-charging, you are causing serious damage to the battery. So instead, try to avoid using superchargers. This is particularly acute for the Panasonic batteries used in some of the Tesla models.

Lastly, I will add a few final words about electric utilities and batteries they use. These are complex systems that are slated to operate for at least 20 years! They are also very expensive assets that cost millions of dollars. So longevity is a serious matter. Naturally, users have no say in how these batteries get charged. Utilities and battery manufacturers do watch over these batteries so that they can last for a long time.

18Apr 2018

5G is the evolution of the present LTE wireless network that carriers are beginning to deploy later this year. 

Yes, it will be a Global network, with every geography around the globe utilizing it at some point in the future. 

Yes, it will have Great capabilities, from streaming videos with very little if any delay, and seamlessly handle a large number of connected devices such as sensors.

Yes, it will Galvanize a new set of applications that may have not even been conceived of yet. Just imagine what the previous generations did to promote social networks, video, and other such uses that were not possible a decade ago.

Yes, it will have Grave consequences on the battery. The demands that the network places on the devices, in particular, the handset or smartphone, are significant. Early results show that the power consumption in the chipsets that run smartphones are higher by as much as 25 to 50%.

Yes, the effort will be Grueling to improve the battery’s performance and safety.

Much has been written about 5G and its planned deployment. Unfortunately, the coverage tends to be centered on the benefits of 5G and neglects the impact on the battery. If anything, it can be misleading in promising a longer battery life, contrary to the present data.

The figure below (courtesy of Verizon Wireless) highlights three main thrusts of 5G. At the low frequency bands, typically between 600 MHz and 900 MHz, 5G will continue to provide mobile broadband, similar to 4G / LTE connectivity on your smartphone or handset device. At these frequencies, the network will be limited by physics to maximum data bandwidths on the order of a few hundred Mbits per second.

 

 

5G introduces a new set of frequency bands that will go as high as 6 GHz where data rates can reach one or more Gbits per second. These higher data rates will provide new services that have much faster connectivity, or as Verizon Wireless calls it, enhanced Mobile Broadband.

The last frequency tranche is above 24 GHz where data rates can now reach 10 Gbits per second or higher.

There are three key observations to make here in relation to the battery. 

First, there will be a substantial increase in the amount of data traffic with 5G. Each bit of data consumes a small amount of battery charge. While electronics are getting incrementally more efficient in power usage, this efficiency is no match to the massive increase in data traffic, anticipated to be 1,000X higher than present-day volumes. This, unquestionably, will be the first strain on the battery requirements necessitating higher battery capacities and energy densities.

The second observation is more subtle but potentially more potent. The 5G networks provide new applications that are time and mission critical with a very low latency. In other words, the time that it takes the data to make a round trip from one device to another, and back to the original device (what engineers call latency) will decrease from a present-day value near 100 ms (milliseconds) to less than 10 ms. 

Who cares, you might ask! Imagine two autonomous vehicles on the highway traveling at 65 mph (105 km/h). In 10 ms, the vehicle would have traveled nearly one foot (about 30 cm). In 100 ms, the distance is ten feet or nearly three meters. This is the difference between avoiding a collision or a potentially tragic accident. 

But low latency means that the apps processor (or CPU) will be getting far less idle time that it does today. You see, battery-operated devices rely on the electronics being asleep (not drawing power) for a good portion of the time in order to save battery. So when the processor needs to be awake a longer duration of time, it will have a substantial impact on power consumption, and consequently the battery. 

The third and last observation relates to the new higher frequency bands at 3 – 6 GHz and greater than 24 GHz. Physics tell us that power consumption increases linearly with frequency. So just by going from the 900 MHz band to the 6 GHz band will incur up to 5X increase in power. 

Additionally, waves at these frequencies do not travel very far and tend to be greatly attenuated by physical obstacles like buildings and trees. This limited propagation requires that network carriers (like AT&T and Verizon) install far more antennas more densely. This large capital outlay will most certainly take time. Consequently, handsets operating at higher frequencies will most certainly need to increase the transmission power to overcome the attenuation. Once again, the battery suffers.

Of course, it is fair to expect that the power utilization in 5G networks will improve over time and manufacturers will derive improvements in efficiency. However, it is highly unlikely that 5G power requirements and impact on battery will be similar to those of 4G/LTE. The demands on the battery are certain to increase and put more constraints on battery performance and safety.

24Dec 2017

If Tesla Motors reduced the power of their flagship Tesla electric vehicles after, say, 50,000 miles of driving, the world would be up in arms. If General Motors throttled the Corvette engine to 4 cylinders after some number of miles, the government would probably be investigating. So why is it that when Apple throttles back the processors on their iPhones, we scratch our heads and don’t take Apple to task?

Apple is throttling the processors to preserve battery life. That is a fact admitted by Apple itself. Consumers have complained about premature shutdowns in older iPhones with aged batteries. Understanding the reasons behind such behavior is the topic of this last post of 2017.

I start by explaining a fundamental property of a battery: its voltage curve. The voltage curve is the relationship between the voltage of the battery and the amount  or rather percentage of electrical charge stored within the battery (naturally, 100% means full and zero means empty). You, as a user, get to see the gauge reading of the remaining charge in your battery, but not the voltage. We care about both values (charge and voltage) because either one of them can cause your smartphone to shut down.

So let’s dig a little deeper in the first figure below and understand how charge and voltage are related. It is the voltage curve for a fresh (unused) battery with nothing connected to its terminals. This curve is what engineers call the open-circuit voltage, i.e., no electrical current is flowing. One will notice that as the battery goes from full (far left) to empty (far right), the voltage gradually drops until it reaches a “cliff.” This behavior is characteristic of lithium-ion batteries. You will notice that the voltage is very low when the battery is empty.

 

 

Now let’s examine what happens to this curve when the smartphone electronics are connected to the battery. Engineers call this situation “under load” because the battery is now powering the electronics inside your mobile device, and electrical current flows through the battery. The next figure below shows that, in this scenario, the voltage curve actually shifts down. You will still notice that, however, the general shape of the voltage does not change much. The only change is that the voltage is now a little lower. The larger the current (the load), the larger the shift. A small change in voltage is ok, but as we will discover a little later, a large drop in voltage is not ok.

 

 

I will digress a little here to explain this drop in voltage. For that, we need to recall some high-school physics: Ohm’s law. When electrical current flows through the battery, the actually voltage is reduced by an amount equal to the electrical current multiplied by the battery resistance.

Two key observations to make here based on Ohm’s law:

  • A higher internal battery resistance results in a larger voltage drop;
  • A larger electrical current (to power the smartphone electronics and screen) also results in a larger voltage drop.

This may sound complicated if you don’t remember your high-school physics, but please bear with me. All you need to remember so far is that the battery has an internal resistance. A fresh battery has a small resistance. An old battery has a larger resistance. A faster processor and bigger display mean more current to power the device.

Therefore, as the battery ages, the voltage curve shifts down more and more — precisely what the figure below shows — until something really bad happens. The voltage of the battery is so low that it can no longer operate the electronics of your smartphone especially under peak conditions when the processor or the radio electronics need more power . The red curve below is for an old Apple iPhone 6 battery after 600 charge-discharge cycles. One can see it is now substantially lower than the voltage curve of a fresh battery. This now spells trouble because the low battery voltage may not adequately operate the electronics.

 

 

No we get to the crucial part: how does this relate to Apple’s throttling back their iPhones.

Most smartphone electronics, in particular the radio and wireless components, cannot operate when the voltage drops below 3.3 or 3.4 V. If the battery voltage does drop too low, the smartphone actually shuts down prematurely.

Let’s illustrate that point further in the next chart. The dashed green line is at at 3.35 V (a reasonable intermediate point between 3.3 and 3.4 V). Let’s first focus on the black curve (that of a fresh battery). You will notice that the battery voltage reaches 3.35 V right at empty. That’s good. That’s exactly what we want our smartphone to do. We want it to shut down because there is no more charge left in the battery, which corresponds to the battery gauge reading zero percent.

 

 

But in an old iPhone 6 (red curve), that’s not what happens! Instead, the battery voltage is too low to power the smartphone electronics even when there is remaining charge in the battery.  It shows that an old iPhone 6 battery reaches the low voltage point with the battery still holding about 20% of its charge. That’s not good; it means that this iPhone will actually shut down prematurely while the battery gauge reads about 20%. This is what confuses consumers.

So far, I am hoping I have not lost you in this lengthy explanation, and that you recognize how an older battery loses its voltage, which leads to an early shutdown.

This is, in particular, an acute problem for Apple because Apple rates its iPhone batteries at 500 cycles. In other words, after 500 charge-discharge cycles (or about 1 ½ years), the iPhone battery has degraded sufficiently to exhibit the low-voltage problems described above.

Fortunately, many other smartphone makers choose to use batteries and solutions that extend the cycle life of the battery to 800 or even 1,000 cycles – or at least 2 years worth or more. Sony Xperia smartphones, for example, do provide batteries with cycle life that is substantially more than 500 cycles.

So why does Apple throttle back their old iPhones? When the iPhone processor is running at full speed, it can draw a significant electrical current from the battery. Remember that Ohm’s law is the product of the resistance and the current. So by throttling back the processor, the current draw is less and hence there is less voltage drop because of Ohm’s law. The net effect is avoidance of an early shut down at the expense of user experience! What Apple should do instead is to make sure that their iPhone batteries can deliver 800 or 1,000 cycles instead of 500 cycles. By the way, you will notice that iPad batteries are rated to 1,000 cycles which is why you don’t see old iPads suffering from the iPhone shutdown problem.

If you own an old iPhone and are experiencing a slowdown, please go to the Apple store and get your old battery replaced….or get yourself a new smartphone with a better battery.

_____________________

UPDATE: On 28 December 2017, Apple published a letter to its customers offering to replace the batteries in older iPhone models that are out of warranty for $29 instead of the standard $79. Kudos to Apple for taking responsibility for this issue and standing by their customers.