Ultrabook Battery Technology is Not Likely to Change

Posted on 25 May 2012 by

There have been a couple of Ultrabook battery-related news items in the last few months. Both, I believe, stem from what was talked about at Intel’s IDF event in Beijing. The first article highlighted how Intel introduced a standard size battery. The most recent article mentions the cylindrical 16650 type cell, a smaller version of the very common Li-Ion cell found in removable laptop battery packs. “Intel Hopes New Batteries Can Reduce Ultrabook Cost.” said the article title.

Most of what is going on is summarised in this slide.

battery tech Intel

 

What’s really happening here is that Intel had a room full of industry partners and took the opportunity to put their thoughts forward. Lets work with standard size cells. Li-Polymer (prismatic cells) for flat solutions and the new 16mm 16650 Li-Ion cylinder batteries for larger, lower cost solutions.

Makes sense.

Intel also said that Ultrabooks need higher energy capacity cells with a longer life cycle and ability to deliver short-term high power bursts. They suggested that faster charge would be good too!

Makes sense, not news! I hope the room was listening and agreed.

 

16650 vs 18650

The 18650 3.7v cell must have sold billions. You’ll find it inside most laptop battery packs in 3, 6 or even 9-cell set-ups. Cheap versions don’t have as much capacity as expensive versions but the average 18660 cell delivers 2200mah. That’s enough to power an Ultrabook for web activities for about an hour – about 8Wh of capacity. There are 2400mah and 2600mah versions available too for another 10%-20% battery life. Panasonic even have a 3100mah version which uses their NNP technology. (Link) At 18mm, these are too big for Ultrabooks.

The newer 16650 is becoming available now in a 2200mah capacity. Given that the cell is 2mm thinner than the 18650, this is an impressive feat. However, prices are high compared to the 18650 and suppliers are limited.  Sanyo are one supplier (part UR16650ZT) but there’s a 2400mah version listed on Alibaba that might not be from Sanyo. China BAK are said to be producing a 16650 too so maybe this is it. I couldn’t find it on their web page.

With a 2400mah battery at 40gm and 16mm you could quite easily create a 6-unit pack inside an Ultrabook and that’s a likely scenario for a decent capacity of  around 53Wh, that same as you’ll find on the Lenovo U300s.

And there lies the issue. The 16650 isn’t going to bring you more capacity. 6-cells is likely to be the perfect balance between size, capacity and cost.

Frustration

I track battery news closely and I do my research and testing. It’s the one component in a portable device that improves battery life with a 1:1 use ratio. Improve the efficiency of a screen by 70% and you’ll end up with, 20% real-world battery life improvement. The same with storage, etc. With a battery, if you increase the capacity by 100%, you get 100% more battery life.

It frustrates me that battery technology has been so slow. A 7% year-on-year improvement in energy density is poor, if not suspicious because it’s clear that a company producing batteries that are longer lasting, with more capacity is going to suffer! They’ll tell you that chemistry doesn’t permit big advances and to some extent it’s true because you can just build a new manufacturing plant and close the old one but we’ve seen so many news items about major breakthroughs in improvements to the current technology that you wonder why they’re not reaching the market. Here’s an article from today about a breakthrough at Washington State University.

We can’t expect major changes in battery technology due to the billions invested in chemical plants around the world but it’s reasonable to expect 15 or 20% per year, surely.

I wrote the same story in 2006 and again in 2007. Nothing much seems to be happening in the battery industry except tiny step improvements. In reality, that’s what’s likely to continue to happen unless someone steps in. Intel, their customers and their 300 million Ultrabook capital fund are the people to do this. Let’s get some action in the battery industry. Let’s get some transparency too.

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  • Adam

    Bravo! Great writing especially for the mobility enthusiasts among us. There’s an investigative journalist hiding in you, Chippy! I’d watch an independent film where you visit battery MFGRs and grill them over why battery tech hasn’t increased, all the while hinting at some sort of hidden industry agenda and conspiracy.

    I might need a beer or two to get through it, but I’d watch it! ; )

    Adam

  • pex

    How often do people actually replace the batteries in there devices on average? For me, I usually replace the battery as soon as I get it (both smartphones and notebooks) in order to put in the largest capacity extended battery I can buy. The next time I take it out is when I plan on upgrading to a new device and will be using it less often or not at all.

    That’s just my situation though. If it’s the same with most consumers then it shouldn’t hurt a company to produce longer lasting batteries. I would more likely buy from a particular brand that I knew included the longer lasting batteries. For example, one of the many reasons I keep buying Thinkpads is that I can buy extended batteries plus a secondary and sometimes even a tertiary battery. Of course, I wouldn’t mind them being smaller, lighter and have higher capacities.

  • Pex: I thought about that ‘equation’ when I wrote the article. This doesn’t quite relate to your situation but…

    There’s something to be said for Intel pushing the laptop market towards sealed batteries. It will hurt the after-sales business but bring in some new economics because it means that the battery you get with the laptop needs to be high quality. (Or can be a ‘feature’ )

    The problem is that the chemical industry behind Lithium batteries is not just producing for laptops. The same battery technology covers even the ‘AA’ rechargables you find in a shop. That’s huge revenue that could be damaged by new technology.

    I don’t profess to know the full story here. I don’t think many people really know what’s going on inside this industry but my feeling is that technology is being held-back for profits, cash-cows, on older technology.

    • pex

      Well, at least for smartphone and notebook batteries, I hope companies start improving the capacity and life span. I don’t mind keeping the regular rechargeable batteries the same. Although, like with my notebook choices, I tend to switch to brands that are longer lasting and leave the companies that let their batteries stagnate.

      Of course, that kind of consumer choice won’t really be available if these battery companies are colluding in some way behind the scenes or just have some unspoken understanding.

  • Jordan

    Wow, and here I thought the oil industry was the only corrupt business holding technology back.

  • DavidC1

    The “lack of progress” called here has nothing to do with conspiracy. The only industry that makes HUGE strides every year is in computing, because they are unique in that Moore’s Law exists.

    Rest of the industry is based on perfecting what exists. Many of the “breakthroughs” don’t come to fruition because there are significant hurdles to reliability and mass production.

    One example is Hydrogen Fuel Cells. It isn’t being widely used because of the difficulty of storing safely and acquiring hydrogen. The biggest barrier to this tech is storing enough of it which requires extremely high pressure. Very high pressure = Safety Warning

    • DavidC1

      “if not suspicious because it’s clear that a company producing batteries that are longer lasting, with more capacity is going to suffer”

      Yes the same could have been said for computing when Bill Gates claimed that 640KB was enough. However progress still comes at a very rapid pace, despite some saying there’s enough compute power.

  • Robert

    what happend to these two scientists at princton i believe who are working on a battery technology which would give current laptops 20 hours of b-life
    intel should work with them.

  • Looking for highest capacity 16650 with battery protection or a high capacity Gumstick prismatic battery solution approx Length(X)-65mm to 75mm, Height(Y)-16mm to 18mm, Depth(Z) 10mm to 14mm ? Any suggestions or companies I should contact ?
    Thanks,
    Jeff

  • looking for highest capacity 16650 available with protection circuitry o Gumstick prismatic battery Length(X)-65mm to 75mm, Width(Y)14mm to 18mm, Depth(Z) 10mm to 14mm ?
    Any suggestions, any companies I should contact ?

    Thanks,
    Jeff

  • Steven Hawkings

    There is more money to be made off of shit poor batteries than super high efficient ones. Wanna know what happens when the typical retarded consumer does when his or hers laptop battery flops? Chances are, it activates their consumer alert signal to purchase a new laptop.

    When someone feels the slightest sense of their phone, tablet, or laptop is behind in technology, they feel it’s necessary to purchase the latest gadget. These corporations dissect every aspect of our relationship between us & our gadgets. Anything to pry us away from our current purchase benefits them, they want YOU to go out and buy something new.

    I strongly believe that they have the technology to develop batteries that can last an entire week, but why would they release it to the public? Instead, we just get just the bare minimum requirement to handle the needs standard battery life for gadgets.

    WE the consumers NEED to DEMAND better battery life, because as long as there’s retarded consumers, corporations will keep spoon feeding them the same crap year after year.

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