How Your Next Smartphone Could Have 7-Day Battery Life

Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

One of the biggest complaints about the smartphones we all have in our pockets is their battery life. It can be difficult to get through a day of texts, Instagram posts, phone calls, and Facebook-scrolling without your phone battery dying on your drive home or giving up as you’re trying to read a news story. Even worse, there are plenty of myths about smartphone batteries and what you should and shouldn’t do to make them last as long as possible. But if a new technology becomes a reality, you may get be able to stop thinking about your smartphone battery and worrying about whether it’ll last through the day.

As Jessica Shankleman reports for Bloomberg, a British fuel-cell developer says it’s working on a battery system that would enable your smartphone to last for a week on a single charge. Intelligent Energy Holdings said that it’s collaborating with an “emerging smartphone maker” — probably not Apple or Samsung — on a $7.6 million project to develop a fuel cell that’s small enough to be used in mobile phones. The technology converts hydrogen into electricity, with water vapor as a byproduct. Fuel cell technology is used to power commercial generators used by businesses like Ikea and Morgan Stanley to reduce emissions and ensure electricity supply.

Bloomberg was told by Intelligent Energy chief executive Henri Winand that a fuel cell-powered smartphone could be on the market within two years if the partnership goes according to plan. “The killer app is a battery with a seven-day refresh life and we think that will appeal to everyone. It’s not just for intrepid explorers,” Winand explained. The company has been researching energy technology for more than 25 years and has amassed a body of more than 1,000 patents. It’s worked on projects like zero-emissions taxis in London and Boeing’s development of the first manned aircraft powered by fuel cells.

The contract with the unnamed smartphone manufacturer will enable Intelligent Energy to further develop a prototype fuel cell phone announced last year, a model that it says is well-suited for users who live off the grid, like people in large parts of countries in Africa. As IEEE Spectrum reported when that phone was announced in 2015, however, developing a fuel cell that could power your iPhone or your Android smartphone is not quite as simple as the headlines might suggest.

While Intelligent Energy was reported to have developed a fuel cell that was small enough to fit inside an iPhone 6, IEEE’s Evan Ackerman pointed out that “what Intelligent Energy has not done, as far as we can tell, is develop a way to store the hydrogen that powers the fuel cell inside of an iPhone 6. A fuel cell is just the bit that turns hydrogen into electricity, and by itself, it doesn’t store any energy at all.”

At the time, headlines were claiming that the company had made a major breakthrough that would enable an iPhone to run for a week without recharging thanks to an integrated hydrogen fuel cell. But the company had actually announced that it was developing a disposable cartridge that would slot into the bottom of smartphones and contain enough hydrogen-releasing powder for a week of normal use. “What it sounds like Intelligent Energy has,” Ackerman explained, “is a very flat fuel cell that can convert hydrogen to electricity inside a phone to charge the phone’s existing lithium-ion battery. This is pretty cool, but to get it to work, you’ll still need to carry around a cartridge of hydrogen.”

The cartridge would function in much the same way as an external battery pack, devices which aren’t exactly scarce. Ackerman noted that to charge an iPhone 6 once a day for a week, you’d need a battery pack with a 12,600mAh battery. A 13,000mAh battery pack, with actual batteries that you can recharge via a wall socket, only costs around $30 and is a little bit larger than a typical smartphone. By comparison, the fuel cell chargers that Intelligent Energy currently sells are larger, more expensive, and can charge a phone fewer times.

While fuel cells don’t degrade like traditional batteries, and are more environmentally friendly than conventional battery technology, Ackerman noted that the benefit of Intelligent Energy’s current battery packs for most consumers would be “marginal at best.” He noted, “I hate to say this, because I love the idea of hydrogen fuel cells, but for the moment, the technology just doesn’t make a lot of sense for most of us.”

It’s not clear whether Intelligent Energy can develop a way to store the fuel cell and the hydrogen that powers it inside a smartphone. (Though if the company does succeed, it seems likely that the phone will need to incorporate some kind of vent to let the water vapor out.) Since hydrogen fuel cells can’t be powered simply by plugging them into the wall, and the hydrogen that powers the fuel cell will have to be replaced, a disposable cartridge that can be inserted into your phone may end up being the most realistic implementation.

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