The Race to Build a Better Smartphone Charger

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Rahul Mangharam on innovation in smartphone battery technology

Exactly 183 years ago last week, on August 29, 1831, British chemist and physicist Michael Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction. The technology is becoming the underpinning of the wireless charging products swarming the marketplace today, as smartphone and tablet users look for easier, quicker and more efficient ways to keep their devices up and running.

It has taken a while for wireless chargers to latch on to Faraday’s discovery, but the demand for them will see a vertical take-off in the coming year, according to Rahul Mangharam, a professor at the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Pennsylvania. Mangharam spoke on the emerging trends in the market for wireless chargers on the Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

Mangharam said demand is growing for hassle-free battery charging and the availability of universal wireless chargers that work across brands. “The technology is here and ready to be used, and [we see] a lot of commercial activity at the retail level,” he noted. “New solutions are coming out that are much more efficient and much more convenient.” Wireless chargers are also safer for use in medical implants and offer “a lot of durability,” he added.

Battery power has not kept pace with the advances in smartphone and tablet technology and the billion-plus apps that can be used with them, Mangharam noted. “There has been an exponential increase in demand for services on the phone, but battery capacity is increasing only incrementally,” he said. “Our batteries are now not lasting for three quarters of the day or half the day.” As users run multiple Internet-based applications on their smartphones, they consume “a lot of the juice” in battery power, and the devices are completely drained by late afternoon on a typical day, he pointed out.

“There has been an exponential increase in demand for services on the phone, but battery capacity is increasing only incrementally.” –Rahul Mangharam

Smartphone and tablet makers could extract competitive advantages from advances in battery technology, Wharton management professor David Hsu said in an interview with Knowledge@Wharton. “As users rely on their mobile devices for more functionality across a spectrum of domains, power is one of the big areas in which device makers can differentiate themselves from their competitors Twitter ,” he noted. In particular, he cited the potential for “incremental advances” in the software and non-battery hardware that could optimize battery consumption.

Some of that is already occurring, Mangharam said on the Knowledge@Wharton show: Samsung already offers replacement wireless charging kits for its Galaxy S4 and S5, and Google’s Nexus 7 tablet includes built-in wireless charging. Apple has filed a patent for wireless charging, and the next iPhone may include that feature. “Apple has to catch up,” he said, adding that the company may have an edge over its rivals, because Android phones of the type Samsung makes drain power much faster than iPhones. Apple owns “the entire ecosystem” around its technology and therefore has the ability to achieve “power optimizations through the entire [system] all the way to the software.”

Power optimization is an ongoing effort among device makers. Companies including Samsung, Apple and Motorola are looking at ways to reduce power consumption on smartphones and tablets, said Mangharam. As an example, he pointed to the launch of the low-energy Bluetooth Smart by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, a nonprofit in Kirkland, Wash., that oversees the development of Bluetooth standards. Bluetooth Smart aims to lower power consumption without compromising on communication range, with applications in health care, security and home entertainment. Today’s wireless battery charging pads are also getting more efficient, retaining more than 98% of the power after charging, a far cry from the 50% wastage in earlier years, Mangharam noted.

“Power is one of the big areas in which device makers can differentiate themselves from their competitors.” –David Hsu

Efforts are also underway by two groups to develop industry-wide standards for wireless charging technology, said Mangharam. One is the Wireless Power Consortium, an alliance formed in 2008 by device makers, which is promoting the so-called “Qi” standard for products that need under five watts of power. Samsung, Sony and Philips are among the device makers that have adopted the Qi standard, Mangharam noted. The second group is the Power Matters Alliance, founded by Procter & Gamble and Powermat Technologies in 2012. This group’s standards cover devices that consume between five and 50 watts.

Even with the growing focus on improved wireless battery technologies, Hsu would like to see much faster innovation than what is currently going on in the sector. “I suspect the need for more radical innovation on the direct battery side has never been higher,” he noted. “Perhaps more engagement with the basic research efforts in battery technology may be in order. Current efforts to develop intermediate solutions, such as the charging mat or more ubiquitous charging stations, are good, but are probably stop-gap measures.”

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