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Our digital revolution relies on far-from-perfect power sources. Here’s why we still spend so much time charging, and how Canadian scientists are trying to change things.
We can thank rapid advances in software and micro-processing for the current explosion in digital gadgets. But the battery remains a problem.
The promise of a super-cell that harvests voltage from thin air, holds an ultra-fast charge for days — and won’t burst into flames — remains the stuff of research labs and experimental prototypes.
For now, we’re stuck with conventional alkaline and lithium-ion systems that need lengthy plug-in charges during regular use. That’s not to mention environmental problems created by non-recycled alkaline batteries, which contain corrosive electrodes that have been known to leech in landfill.
Engineers, responding to the ballooning demands on battery technology, have been busy packing more active material into conventional battery cells, and have made electrodes thinner to double their density. Manufacturers are also designing batteries that release energy in short bursts to squeeze extra time out of the battery’s life.
But all of that density loading can come at a price, as companies including Apple and Dell have ordered battery recalls over heat-related failures. But researchers say the industry shift to a non-metallic lithium battery using lithium ions has produced the safest system yet.
Still, after decades of anticipation, that disruptive breakthrough remains elusive.
Some argue that the mobile device makers themselves are to blame, building business models that force users to trade in their otherwise functional smartphones, tablets and laptops once their non-replaceable batteries run out.
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