The IDTechEx report, Battery Elimination in Electronics and Electrical Engineering 2018-2028, said moving beyond batteries will be key for creating vast IoT networks to monitor manmade and natural environments. The move will also enable other technologies like virtually maintenance-free electric vehicles and long-life robots, said author and IDTechEx chairman Peter Harrop.
Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries currently power huge numbers of mobile devices such as phones or laptops. They are fuelling new electric cars and are also touted as the future of a new decentralised power sector through commercial technology like the Tesla Powerwall.
Despite their ubiquity, lithium-ion batteries and similar alternatives have a long list of problems, said Harrop. Limitations include their size, reliability, maintenance, toxicity, flammability and safety, he said. “Lithium-ion batteries will dominate the market for at least 10 years and probably much longer, yet no lithium-ion cell is inherently safe and no lithium-ion battery management system can ensure safety in all circumstances,” he wrote.
Safety issues were highlighted recently by a spate of exploding Samsung Galaxy Note 7 phones, which were subsequently replaced. Cost is also often prohibitive, said Harrop, sometimes costing up to 60% of the price of an electric vehicle.
Lifecycle is another factor that frequently limits batteries’ potential for IoT sensors, cars and other new technologies, he added. Instead, he suggested other storage methods like supercapacitors could be short-term replacements. The long-life devices, which charge in seconds, can make vehicles such as electric buses twice as efficient.
Companies will ultimately need to move beyond energy storage itself for new technologies to truly flourish, he said. A team from the University of Washington demonstrated battery-free technology earlier this year with a working phone which harvests power from ambient radio signals.
Light, motion or temperature changes could power the next generation of IoT sensors, allowing networks of “billions” of nodes, left in place for a lifetime. One example could be earthquake sensors embedded deep within concrete bridges or skyscrapers, said Harrop.
“They are set in the concrete forever, you can’t break it open to replace the battery. These things will sense which building will come down in an earthquake,” he said. “You get the people out of the building which is going to come down first because all your sensors, which are there in perpetuity, have told you.”
Other storage-free IoT sensors could include miniature forest fire detectors with windmills powered by strong updrafts triggered by high temperatures, said Harrop.
However, he accepted the battery market is currently booming and is set to continue for many years. As the electric car market grows – some experts believe the vehicles will be in equal competition with internal combustion models by the early-to-mid 2020s – companies and governments are increasing investment in batteries.
Last week, the Government announced the £246 million Faraday Challenge to fund research, innovation and development of new batteries. InnovateUK chief executive Ruth McKernan said it presented “huge opportunities for UK businesses” and ministers believe it will help meet carbon emission targets.
“We don’t even forecast that lithium-ion batteries, the leading type, will be easing in their growth rates – let alone peaking in their output – in 10 years from now,” said Harrop, who nonetheless stressed their many limitations and alternatives. “It won’t be the case that batteries will suddenly be eliminated, but there are a lot of things that are eliminating batteries.”