The Laws of Physics Will Not Yield to those of Commerce

Reposted from November, 2008

PC World, Feb 4, 2000: Finally emerging from labs, new power sources like fuel cells and lithium polymer could revolutionize design and use of cell phones, PDAs, and notebooks.

IT World, October 20, 2008: Engineers at Panasonic have succeeded in reducing the size of a prototype methanol fuel cell so that it’s no larger than a laptop battery pack but provides all-day power.

PC Magazine online, October 31, 2008: Sony said Friday that it will recall roughly 100,000 notebook batteries worldwide in conjunction with the U.S. Consumer Product and Safety Commission, after several reports that the batteries could overheat.

Several journals recently have proposed that batteries are undergoing a new wave of research that may yield incredible gains in longevity – perhaps by as much as 20 times what the present models provide.You’d think we’d know better, but we don’t.

As carbon-based life forms much like the common flashlight battery, we humans have become inured to dying even as we resent science for not making our iPhone last longer. Much of our humor (unless it is just me) centers on the topic of death, and we are routinely confronted with loss especially as we grow older. None of us is ever fully comfortable dealing with really sudden or really young victims who fall prey to the perils of living. Luckily, our early exposure to dying often relates to toys or pets (though occasionally an unfortunate combination occurs…). Essentially we expect gerbils and batteries to wear down fairly quickly, and secretly applaud our comparative durability. I would hate to be outlived by a toothbrush battery.

I do not have much power of recall. I have often been accused of being the victim of “somezheimers”, the rarer form of Alzheimer’s that causes only the loss of memories others would like me to retain. Thus, the only remaining memory I have of childhood (apart from the documented incident involving Uncle Harry, the Easter eggs, and the microwave oven) is of a toy tank I received as a present when I was about eight years old. It could go either forward or backward, and came with a movable turret mounted with a large fully-functioning cannon. The shells consisted of three parts: a projectile, a spring, and a casing. It took less time than you’d think to discover that the essential elements could be reconfigured slightly to achieve more spectacular results in terms of firing velocity and accuracy. Even as a kid, I was a kindred spirit to battery researchers.

Cunningly, the tank was (as were all toys prior to legislation which forbade the practice) manufactured by the Super Promising Battery Company (makers of “consumer expendables” a term that ironically explains itself). Super Promising Batteries were more exciting in name than in fact. The burn rate of the battery bore a causal relationship with a corresponding reduction in the fun rate of the toy. My tank would operate for around three minutes before the batteries completely discharged. Or so I thought. In actual fact, within days another level of discharge would soon follow… greenish-yellow tendrils of leaking acid would cover and then corrode the metal contacts within the toy ultimately rendering it useless. I don’t recall how many toys were damaged by leaking batteries, but I suspect all of them were. If only my memory or surveying techniques were better….

Rechargeable batteries proposed to change all that by being used several cycles before being disposed of. In theory, they’d be cheaper to own than regular versions because they lasted three to five times longer. In actual use, however, they faced two obstacles. One is the “memory effect,” a gradual reduction in life afflicting most rechargeable batteries. The result: they only have enough power to light the little green bulb that says they’re fully charged after spending days in the charging unit. The second is the “confidence factor”-would you want to power your smoke detector or pacemaker with rechargeables? Frankly, I had never used a rechargeable battery with the expectation that it would have the same going-in power as a disposable until laptop computers came along. Now, industry reporters are publishing claims of incredible progress in this area, making it almost easy to believe we’re on the brink of an explosion of great gains in portable power.

Those Who Cannot Remember the Past are Condemned to Repeat it

In the winter of 1939, a small, balding, bespectacled man with unusually bushy eyebrows fidgeted nervously in a Defense Department waiting room for over two hours past his scheduled appointment time. His ill-fitting three-piece suit was obviously causing extreme discomfort-hissing radiators produced altogether too much heat in the cramped space-yet he chose not to take off his jacket and roll up his sleeves because he did not want to be taken less seriously than he otherwise might. In the briefcase he clutched on his lap with both hands was a schematic drawing of an internal combustion engine which not only was cooled by water but fueled by it as well. The ‘Water Engine’ most likely would change the balance of power in the world as it was at that time, but also the future of life on this planet. Or so the foolish man hoped as he sat there.

Editor’s Note: Sometimes, common goals of important civilizations are achieved through decades of focused human enterprise. Sometimes, across centuries. In the pantheon of energy-based priorities, the notion of a “clean, inexpensive, and virtually inexhaustible fuel supply” falls second to only “keeping the hot side hot, and the cold side cold”. McDonald’s restaurants imprinted this on our collective consciousness as the top priority through persistent advertisements for the McDLT in the 1980’s… Ads that in sum cost more than the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways across the USA. Yet, the product failed. Only twice in its history has McDonald’s badly disappointed me:

1.         The McDLT, essentially a polystyrene clamshell package that sealed the hot hamburger patty on one side and the cold lettuce and tomato on the other and didn’t work because the entire package was then placed under the McTepidizer heat lamps. But the concept certainly seemed otherwise logical

2.         McSoup. You cannot imagine how little attraction this had.

So, clearly the man in the waiting room had a fairly important notion to share. When he finally met with a few government scientists and soldiers about his concept, he was sternly reprimanded then ridiculed for creating something that may “move a car forward by a couple of miles, but set the economy back by a thousand years” and was never heard from again.

Amazingly enough, in another featureless room nearby, an equally non-descript woman (perhaps, though, with better-tended eyebrows) waited for several hours hoping to meet with someone about her invention-a rechargeable battery that didn’t quickly degrade in terms of useful life or time to drain. If the Water Engine guy was ignored then ridiculed, at least he got to the ridicule phase… nobody ever sat with her and discussed her prototype at all. Hours later, drenched by pouring rain, unable to see effectively through her glasses, she stepped out into the street and was struck by a delivery truck and killed immediately. Ironically, the truck was owned by the Super Promising Battery Company (then known as the Super Promising Lead and Acid Company). Sadly, her untimely demise cooled things down in the battery field until just recently.

Guiding premise: all technology is inherently dangerous. Every innovation that makes it to the marketplace should be matched by thousands that don’t. It used to fall on researchers to do the preliminary testing to ensure that some concepts get quickly squelched owing to unreliability or explosiveness. For example, as a matter of routine safety consideration, all members of the Gartner team are required to wear safety goggles just to read trade articles that may merely contain concepts of apparently incredible value, but may also disregard the human factors likely to cause their failure. At first we are dizzied by the incredible rush of excitement the ideas generate, and then are suddenly hit by the second wave of righteous indignation that the same theories are conclusively dimwitted and the resulting products should not make it into people’s hands. Sometimes we fall down. This may be unrelated. But now the industry clearly has decided to use marketing instead of research to determine what theories will be proven.

How did manufacturers generate such enthusiasm for a computer that finally meets or exceeds nearly all customer expectations in display, speed, storage, memory, and connectivity yet commonly has a battery life of 1 1/2 hours (at most) after a year or so of use? If an average movie lasts just over two hours (not counting bonus features and fluff) but its player cannot last past the second act, didn’t they presume there’d be backlash? Haven’t we all fallen victim at one or many points to battery lifespan limitations and the attendant frustration and rage? And, haven’t new vistas of travel rage been revealed by the many more devices with battery dependencies we now carry? And, why did all the manufacturers ignore one critical criterion in developing these otherwise excellent mobile machines? They didn’t. They knew. “Physics,” they said. They couldn’t keep the form factor in terms of size and weight if they were to include a better battery. But now, they assure us hope is on the horizon in terms of battery development, and I forthwith provide some samples of the possibilities (as I understand them) based first on advances in the field of Chemistry:

The Lithium Polymer Battery

Here’s the blurb that caught my eye in a computer magazine years ago:

“Lithium polymer is based on a malleable electrochemical material that can be cleverly fitted into the dead spaces inside electronic devices. While lithium polymer generates less power for the same amount of competing materials, more of it can fit inside a device, offering extra battery life or permitting still-lighter or radically shaped cell phones and personal digital assistants. A battery could even “hide” behind a notebook’s screen. Several industry observers say a handful of vendors may offer lithium polymer devices by late 2000.”

My observations: 

Problem is that there’s no “dead space” inside a MacBook. I took mine apart to check for available nooks and crannies, and determined that if the batteries were as malleable as chewing gum there would be enough room for six little wads inside the case. And, maybe five or so squished into the keyboard and another four wads perched atop the monitor (in elfin poses) and a couple plugging all the holes for peripherals-17 wads in total making an unsightly mess and, after hardening, a useless (though minty) Mac. Apple would have to use a bottom-mounted or back-of-screen-mounted ’slice’ that would weigh a lot to provide longer battery life… maybe a couple of pounds for 20 hours. There’s no point in using weaker materials especially if they aren’t fitting inside the existing space, so this is probably not the best choice.

The Methane Battery

Again, here’s the part of an article that caught my attention:

“Potentially the most exciting are fuel cells, using cheap, widely available fuel sources such as methane or hydrogen for part of the electrochemical reaction that generates electricity. The largest fuel cells are touted as a ‘next big thing’ in electric cars and home energy systems. But postage-stamp-size versions are being developed for consumer electronic devices like camcorders and cell phones. The Institute of Gas Technology has been doing fuel cell research for about 20 years. A lot of things have improved over the years, so this technology is finally getting to the point of being economically attractive. And this comes at a time when electrical power is being deregulated. Consumers want more choice, and we want to give it to them.”

My observations: 

Methane stinks. There’s no way around it. As a former cow-wrangler on a dairy farm, I ought to know. Moreover, this type of battery requires refilling after it loses power. That means more methane factories and more little disposable bottles and more problems with the TSA when I go through security at the airport. The methane supply chain problems will need to be sorted out-as will the plethora of different adaptors in the interim as manufacturers like Panasonic go in this direction even as others go elsewhere. Early users of methane-powered laptops are advised to work strictly from home and ventilate religiously.

The Methanol Battery

What caught my eye:

… “One such miniature fuel cell, a device that uses liquid methanol (wood alcohol), was announced last month by Motorola Labs and Los Alamos National Laboratory. The biggest benefit is going to be operating life-10 times longer than today’s batteries, says Bill Ooms, director of Motorola’s Material, Device, and Energy Research. Ooms says the cells aren’t rechargeable. Cells will be inexpensive enough to be disposed of after use (methanol today costs only 35 cents a gallon). ”

My observations:

After spending some time in North Carolina, where stills are surprisingly common even today, I worry that I would go to the store for a bulk package of fuel cells only to find some tampering had occurred. Apart from the fact that they’re dangerous because they’re extremely flammable, they are also dangerous because people who drink methanol fuel cells to “recharge their batteries” are more than 17 times as likely to go blind as those who drink coffee. I am not saying that computer users I know would be tempted to drink from the fuel cells directly after a long, hard day. But I’m not saying that they won’t, either. That’s all I’m going to say.

The Alcohol, Water, and Oxygen Battery

Here’s the folksy blurb:

“Instead of lugging around extra batteries to keep your cell phone energized, someday you may just buy it a drink and the little rascal will happily keep working hour after hour.  At least that’s the scheme that Motorola Inc. is backing in conjunction with Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. They are working to miniaturize fuel cells to power wireless phones in place of batteries.

Fuel cells work something like batteries with a fuel tank. They convert chemicals to electricity, much as batteries do, but instead of needing to be plugged for hours to recharge when they run flat, fuel cells perk up as soon as you feed them more chemicals. In Motorola’s vision, the fuel cells would run on alcohol mixed with water and oxygen from the air.

The fuel cell cocktails would be packaged in little containers that you could just slip into your wireless phone and let it guzzle away while you make call after call. Tiny fuel cells could also be used to power laptop computers, Game Boys and a host of other portable electronic gizmos.

The cells on Motorola’s drawing board would run about 10 times longer than today’s batteries before needing a new fuel supply, and the only waste product from the process is water, which would be expelled as vapor.”

My observations: 

I followed instructions diligently, then powered up the test cell phone (an old Motorola StarTac) and called my mom. I was at first happy to have much more “talk time” to “listen” to her droning on and on about all her ailments and social complaints in great detail, but soon found the room to be completely filled with vapor. I then realized that my clothes were dripping wet and I was standing in a pool of water an inch deep and none of this was of my own doing. It was the phone. And now, I have a frog issue.

The Hydrogen Battery

The blurb:

“A fuel cell works best using pure hydrogen and oxygen, which is what NASA uses in its spacecraft systems. Catalysts help nudge positively charged protons from hydrogen molecules through a membrane, separating them from negatively charged electrons carried by the hydrogen and creating a charge imbalance that produces electric current flow. Cars might use fuel cells instead of internal combustion engines as their main power source, if motorists could drive into a fueling station and fill ‘er up with hydrogen whenever necessary. But, sadly for fuel cell enthusiasts, even though hydrogen is extremely plentiful in the world, it isn’t easily and safely packaged and pumped like gasoline.

There are already prototype cars using fuel cells, and the Chicago Transit Authority has had some fuel cell buses on the road to demonstrate the viability of the technology. But those buses have huge tanks on the roof to hold all the hydrogen. It’s expensive to fill those tanks, and putting big tanks in cars would take up too much room and be too heavy.”

My observations:

I like the reference to NASA and The Space Program, but how does this translate to laptops? I visited the Chicago Transit Authority to see one of the buses and assess the actual dimensions of the tanks and their prospective cost to fill. Sadly, I was not given permission to examine one close-up. This because the last bus to have been converted suffered an enormous explosion-or so I thought the person behind the security glass might have said. I gathered that little was left of it seeing not even a crater, but am able to calculate based on pure guesswork and no diligent inquiry that a laptop battery fueled by pure hydrogen would require a tank the size of a two-drawer filing cabinet and cost $1,200 (USD) to fill each day. I expect a Hummer-branded laptop to emerge soonest.

The Mentos and Diet Coke Battery

More accurately caffeine, potassium benzoate, aspartame, and CO2 gas contained in the Diet Coke and the gelatin and gum arabic ingredients of the Mentos combined together to create a jet effect. Harnessing this would only seem reasonable for disposable devices solely manufactured to play music by today’s most prominent teen acts like the Jonas brothers or Miley Cyrus.

The Pesticide and Alcohol Battery

Really… are they kidding? Boom.

The Fertilizer and Oxygen Battery

Same lab, different combination. Again, Boom.

The Nitroglycerin and Match Head Battery

What the? In each case, dropping your newly-powered laptop would cause a crater the size of France. Toby’s Theorem of Relative Volatility states that if it isn’t Chemistry that kills us, it’ll be Physics….

The Flywheel Battery

The blurb:

“The underlying concept is simple, though the finished flywheel assemblies become increasingly complex. First you feed electricity to a motor, which accelerates the wheel to cruising speed. Riding on magnetic bearings inside a vacuum container that eliminates air resistance, the wheel can spin almost indefinitely after you cut the power. When you want to tap its energy, you draw electricity back out of the motor, which now functions as a generator. This imposes a load on the wheel, gradually slowing it as mechanical energy is converted back to electricity.”

“In this way, the flywheel can substitute for a battery, while offering features that no battery can match. Even the most exotic battery can be damaged if you charge or discharge it too quickly. A flywheel isn’t affected by this treatment, and can operate at extreme temperatures, can contain 10 times a battery’s power density, and – according to its advocates – should last for decades.”

“Naturally, the more energy you cram into a wheel, the more attractive it becomes. To increase the amount stored, you can make the wheel heavier, or spin it faster. Since you get four times as much energy if you double the speed, but only twice as much if you double the weight, clearly speed is the way to go – though this creates another problem. Doubling the speed generates four times the centrifugal force.”

“This is not a trivial matter. Let’s say your car is fitted with a simple steel flywheel to smooth the output of the engine between piston strokes. At a speed of 5,000 rpm, this wheel presents no safety hazard; but research scientists want to spin a flywheel 20 times faster, at 100,000 rpm, producing 400 times the centrifugal force. That’s more than enough to cause a steel wheel to self-destruct, spraying shrapnel at thousands of miles per hour. In every direction.”

My observations:

Yikes. To work as a laptop battery, the flywheel would have to be quite small. About the size of a U.S. Dime (for overseas audience members, this is roughly 2cm wide by 8mm thick and weighing 900 stone if my conversion tables are accurate.) To generate enough power to make the cost worthwhile ($20,000 US for the battery alone, since they can only imagine producing one per year which doesn’t fragment in the lab and kill the research team – again), the Dime would have to spin at a rate of 800,000 rpm and thereby produce incredible centrifugal force. This advancement in technology would allow the laptop to run for 20 hours between charges, but the downside would be fairly severe: 1) the laptop has a tendency to vibrate quite violently… in fact the test models have been known to cross a conference room table in as little as two seconds before plunging to the floor and racing off on their backs while “screaming like fifty schoolchildren on the cotton candy rollercoaster”; and 2) the probability that a drive failure could cause immediate shrapnel-wounds or death to everyone within a radius of fifteen feet (or fifty-three rows of seating on Cheapjet Air) has met with mixed enthusiasm.

Incidentally, the test machine I was provided jumped off the table in just after 7 seconds all the while emitting an ear-piercing whine. As a very experienced husband and father, I might have been able to work around those, but was more concerned that the caution stickers “WARNING – STAY AWAY FROM THE MACHINE” may draw a crowd and distract me from my work. If not the machine, maybe my body armor would generate its own flak as I passed (again) through a TSA security checkpoint at the airport.


Rest assured it will be a couple of years before we actually use anything other than Li-Ion batteries in mobile devices, particularly laptops. It’s for our own protection. Meanwhile, I suggest we divert all research energy toward a better option: recharging devices powered by simple sources. Each of us has been slighted somewhat by genetics and habits, and thus might admit wanting to be slightly taller, slightly thinner, and slightly healthier somehow. Along with being able to play games or work on PowerPoint presentations without limitation.

Rather than continuing to bang our heads against the problem of getting longer battery life, let’s lower our sights to our own feet and leverage the understanding that “mobile devices are more likely to be used by those already on the go.” By creating shoes that generate and store a trickle charge each time our foot strikes the floor, we’ll be able to supply ourselves with nearly inexhaustible power for recharging our devices and grow tall, strong, and smart as a result. I’m sure there are some impediments to this concept. Given the complexities of producing fashionable and functional footwear with embedded gyroscopic, friction-based, sweat-converting, or other types of generators, I hereby offer the concept without consideration of personal profit. Call them “Apple Maccosins” or perhaps “Tesla Tasseled Loafers” or even just “Boots” – it seems that we’ve overlooked a pretty good option with significant extended benefits. I am sure the TSA will at first confiscate them, but maybe we’ll get past that hurdle too.

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