Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

The Battery Bottleneck

Whether for or against (or ambivalent) about where technology is taking us, everyone speaks of it as though it were all of a piece, i.e., all-improving, all-the-time. But technology is no more a monolith than was communism. Although some areas clearly progress faster than others (e.g., hard disk storage), there is one aspect of technology that seems to be a world apart from our new gadgets.

I speak, of course, of batteries. This ancient (2,000 years old!) technology has improved over the past 100 years, but hardly at all when compared to digital. For example, everything digital is going wireless, yet is still dependent upon batteries that can’t keep pace, that fall further and further behind. Day by day, batteries become more and more of a bottleneck. Yet this gap seems irrelevant to technology’s promoters, advertisers, and manufacturers.

To illustrate this gap with a current example, let’s take smart phones. Despite battery shortcomings, people buy newer and more powerful, feature-laden smart phones, and then proceed to use all of these features in the extreme (e.g., making movies). With the same old inadequate batteries.

Then, outside the world of computers, there are the mountains of remotes using good ‘ole double and triple-A batteries. In the early days, we walked to the television set (or stereo) and turned it on, selected a station, and so forth. No more. Now, every non-computer device comes with a remote: every TV, stereo, DVD/Blue Ray player, etc.

Then there’s the problem of chargers for all these battery-powered devices. What about the chargers you must travel with if you expect to use a portable device (smart phone, tablet, MP3 player) in your car (or a rental)? Each device needs it own charger. Unless you do what I did and buy a Car Power Inverter (for under $20 at Walmart) and simply plug in the same chargers you use at home.

While I’m at it, why is there no charger standardization for comparable devices? I have a useless five-year old Black & Decker Dustbuster because I can’t replace its dead charger—it’s unlike any charger out there. And why do all cell phone chargers have different connectors, even when the voltages are similar? When a battery finally dies on a cell phone and you discover it can’t be replaced, what do you do? Get a new cell phone. Meanwhile, you have two or three unused chargers from previous phones. All because there’s no standard connector.

More portable devices are discarded due to battery failure, or lack of replacement, than all other causes combined. To put this another way, the crisis of diminishing fossil fuel power may soon take second place to the lack of adequate battery power. The more battery technology falls behind wireless technology, the more the time we will spend wired to our battery chargers. The freedom of wireless portability is turning into a tether to the wall socket. This is progress?


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One thought on “The Battery Bottleneck

  1. Great article! I have been thinking about this for a long time as well. Investment tip? Find the battery manufacturer with the largest R&D budget out of all and hope for the best, because as you say, batteries are the last remaining bottle neck. However, it does seem like most innovation is coming from universities these days in terms to batteries.

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