As my three daughters eagerly opened their Christmas presents, my heart sank further and further to the floor. There are two things that stirke fear into the soul of any self-respecting Dad (at least, those with the limited handyman skills that I have).

BatteriesThe first is the euphemism emblazoned on some of the more serious toys: “some assembly required”. This invariably requires about 5 different screw drivers sizes (only one of which I might have somewhere back here in my rusting and dusty toolbox), a ratchet set (are there really people who actually have a complete ratchet set neatly laid out in their shed?) and other tools I don’t even know how to pronounce, let alone use. And, of course, all the “English” assembly instructions were written by the rural supervisor in the Chinese factory, having first translated them from the Russian translation of the hand scribbled notes of the original engineer (who designed version 1, but not this version you’re trying to assemble in front of your increasingly less adoring tribe of juvenile female sapiens).

The second is: “batteries not included”. I mean, really, why not? The adrenaline rush of wripping the paper off is followed by the endorphin rush of recognising the very electronic gizmo the advertisers so cleverly convinced them they could not live without. Loud shrieks, arms aloft and shrill screams (I told you I had three daughters) are rapidly followed by waves of disappointment and frustrated little arms crashing down to their sides, as they realise that their darling daddy did not have the foresight to stock up on a carton of AA and AAA size batteries. And it’s Christmas today, and the shops are closed, and we can only get batteries tomorrow. And, yes dears, I know you’re disappointed – believe me, with all your whining and complaining, I’m as disappointed as you are!

Why do manufacturers do this? OK, besides the obvious price issue (Toy A includes batteries worth a few dollars, whilst Toy B does not. Toy B appears cheaper, and is sold more. So, eventually Toy A stops supplying batteries and drops shelf price to just below Toy B, and it starts selling more), is there another reason? If there is, it escapes me.

And why do they not make it more clear on the packaging that you need to purchase batteries (and which batteries you will need to purchase)? And why are toy shop assistants and cashiers not taught to ask, “would you like batteries with that?” as a matter of course?

Anyway, all that got me thinking that the easiest way to become the world’s first dollar trillionaire would be to come up with a battery that provides more power for longer.  Battery power is the single biggest limiting factor in most electronics at the moment.  I did a bit of research around current (aherm, excuse the pun) research into battery power.  Here’s what I found (and it doesn’t look, err, bright).
MIT materials scientist and battery expert Yet-Ming Chiang co-founded the battery startup company A123 Systems (MA, USA).  He was interviewed by Technology Review in August 2006:

“There really are two routes to as-high or higher energy systems that are safer and lower cost. One is better control of manufacturing quality…. The alternative approach is to try to make the chemistries intrinsically safe, or at least safer. People are working on this in many laboratories around the world.  Even [with] the current materials that have been used up until now, the general trend is toward alloys and modified compositions that are safer than what had been used in the past. And then there are the more radical changes in chemistry, such as the phosphate chemistry.

“People who are working on better batteries are very optimistic. There’s definitely room for growth; there are many avenues for improvement. If you look at it realistically, I’d say a factor of two improvement in the next decade is quite realistic. A factor of 10 is not….

“In the order of things you can do, you first have [to increase] the voltage. A higher voltage system will have higher energy, because the energy is the capacity of the battery times the voltage.  The second [option is to find] new host materials that can pack more ions into a given space or weight.  A third option is to increase the charge per ion that’s transported, which is a more difficult challenge. Basically, if you have the same storage capacity (the same number of ions being stored) and the same voltage, if you had a divalent cation such as magnesium, you would have twice the energy of the lithium counterpart. But the difficulty is that the materials that would make a magnesium-based battery work have not yet been developed. And physically there have been concerns, for example, over the rate at which you could move [the magnesium].

“I think fuel cells are definitely worth studying. There’s no arguing with the metrics that suggest the run-time that you can get from devices is currently higher for fuel cells than the battery chemistries we have today.  [But], even though on an energy density basis they still look promising, there are a number of engineering challenges. [One concern is] the byproduct that comes out of fuel cells, water, for example, or carbon dioxide. A battery doesn’t have any chemical byproducts that come out of the battery.  And then there’s the fuel itself. If you look at what you can bring on an airplane now, that may cause some additional concerns for fuel cells.”

Fuel cells, mentioned above, seem to hold the most promise for anything more than just an incremental improvement.   US company Neah Power Systems is one of a number of cpmoanies experimenting with new ways to power electronic devices. A fuel cell converts hydrogen and oxygen into electricity and heat. It resembles a perpetually recharging battery, and could actually be made to fit into a standard-size battery to recharge it. Because the rechargeable element is a small cartridge, users could get rid of their extra battery units and AC adapters and carry cartridges instead.

Neah Power’s technology uses methanol which has several advantages as a fuel, including being powerful, inexpensive and environmentally friendly.  Problem, though:  fuel cells are a few years away from market.

Another future technology, designed to power much smaller devices like remote sensors or medical implants, involves harnessing the power of radioactive isotopes and using this to fuel tiny batteries inside such nanomachines, according to its developers at Cornell University.  Cornell professor Amit Lal has created a battery that measure just 1mm but can run for decades, reports the EE Times. In theory the power from radioactive isotopes could last up to 100 years, but Lal says that they will only operate properly for around 50 years. Some isotopes also carry the benefit of being impervious to environmental conditions, such as temperature, which can affect the lifetime of normal batteries.  Nice info, but not helpful for my daughter’s Fur Real Friend.

There’s a trillion dollars to be made.  Anyone interested?  My daughters certainly are!

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