The smartphone in your pocket is thousands of times more powerful than the computers that put a man on the moon in 1969. That amazing fact is due to the Moore’s Law dictum that integrated circuits will double their capability every 18 months or so. Moore’s Law isn’t really a law in the scientific sense, of course, but rather an observation of a historic trend first described by semiconductor pioneer Gordon Moore.
A broader look at a wide range of technologies reveals a very different picture. The technologies that underpin most industries don’t follow the curve of Moore’s Law at all. The sobering fact is many technologies move rather slowly.
But there’s good news: Technological progress can be accelerated greatly by the very technology that does obey Moore’s Law — microprocessors.
Consider the camera lens. Over decades, advances in glass grinding popularized telephoto and wide-angle lenses for 35mm cameras. Those lenses cost hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars, but they were worth the price for many consumers, enthusiasts and professionals.
Now consider the tiny plastic camera lens that is found in smartphones. Those lenses cost about $.50 to make and they are far from perfect. But they can take excellent pictures thanks to software that compensates for their flaws. Now, anyone with a smartphone can take great pictures.
Something similar is happening in battery technology. Battery technology has been improving and now offers about four times as much energy density as it did 20 years ago. In contrast, microprocessors following Moore’s Law are 300 times as fast as they were 20 years ago. Battery technology is not standing still — it just looks that way when measured against Moore’s Law. It follows what I call “Snail’s Law.” Take a look at the charts below:
Faced with this reality, the smart approach is to take inspiration from the smartphone camera lens and use software to shift the burden of improving battery performance to those Moore’s-Law-obeying microprocessors. This approach will pay off for today’s battery-dependent devices and machines, especially smartphones and electric cars. It will enable smartphones to work effectively with tomorrow’s 5G networks, which will increase the demands on batteries. And it will enable electric cars to become more affordable by enabling the use of less expensive batteries.
How it’s Done: Adaptive Charging and Battery Analytics
There are two ways in which software and computing power can help: adaptive charging and battery analytics.
First, adaptive charging. The rate at which a battery is charged makes a big difference in its lifespan. Rapid charging shortens battery life; slow charging lengthens it. Also, charging a battery 100% will cause it to wear out faster, while charging to only 80% or 90% will enable it to last longer. Adaptive charging optimizes the rate and degree of charging to maximize battery life.
Second, battery analytics. By studying the state of battery health and anticipating degradation and failure, a battery can be shut down before an explosion or fire occurs. Every battery, just like every person, snowflake or camera lens, is different. Software studies each battery’s unique characteristics and correlates them with usage patterns. Is the phone used mostly at certain times of the day? Is it usually plugged into the charger at night? Paying attention to these things enables battery management algorithms to understand how the battery will change as it ages.
But could this kind of intelligent monitoring drain the battery? Very little. When implemented during the charging cycle, there’s no chance the monitoring processes will reduce battery life. The rest of the time, all that’s necessary is a few milliwatts of power and a small amount of memory.
As far as batteries are concerned, there’s no getting around Snail’s Law. But there’s no reason to stand still, either. The fact is, batteries are being manufactured by the truckload, at ever-lower costs per unit. Rather than wait for the next battery breakthrough, it makes sense to take advantage of battery commoditization today by putting software intelligence and microprocessor muscle to work.
— Nadim Maluf is the CEO of Qnovo Inc.
>> This article was originally published on our sister site, EE Times: “Overcoming the Snail's Pace of Battery Innovation.”