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Battery Upgrades

Advances in Portable Power

Manufacturers are touting smaller batteries that pack more punch and have less environmental impact than today’s versions. Will they really be better than the ones you have stashed at home? In most cases the improvement is minimal, but next-generation options, such as portable fuel cells, could trump the field.

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Energy. It’s the buzzword of the day, and the topic is always in our faces. Batteries for household and personal devices rarely make big headlines, but new technologies will trickle down to the small end of the scale, too, as scientists and start-up companies try to one-up each other in terms of energy efficiency for cars and homes.

This means that batteries for your cellphone, computer and power tools that last longer and deliver more power than ever are on their way this year and next. You also will see updated versions of the batteries that you buy at the local drugstore to power your flashlights and cameras.  

Whether you need a new battery for your notebook computer or you just want to rest easy that the old flashlight still lights after a few months in the drawer, your options in batteries are expanding to include new materials with which you might be unfamiliar. (In contrast, when we last reported on this topic 4 years ago, your choice was essentially between lithium or … well, everything else.) You can expect many of the new versions to be more expensive, but not all appear to justify their higher price tags.   

LETTING IT ALL ZINC IN. Two zinc-based batteries are grabbing headlines this year: nickel-zinc and zinc-air. The former is on the market, but the latter won’t be available for at least another 2 years.

Nickel-zinc batteries have been around for decades, and it’s widely accepted that nickel-zinc batteries are safer and cheaper than lithium-ion but deliver more power than nickel-cadmium (NiCd) or nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH). So, why all the fuss about lithium? Nickel-zinc languished because it doesn’t deliver high-density power, which is needed for computers, and although it’s effective for lower-density, power needs it’s 5 to 10 percent more expensive than NiCd.

But cadmium is toxic, and market-research firm Frost & Sullivan reports that consumers and manufacturers are increasingly willing to pay that 5 to 10 percent premium to avoid handling the material. In fact, NiCd is being phased out in California, which banned the disposal of cadmium in 2007 and is debating the elmination of its use altogether. Obviously, this makes the nontoxic nickel-zinc more attractive.

PowerGenix introduced this year a nickel-zinc battery for both consumer and manufacturer applications that can be used in all of the various items that typically are powered by NiMH batteries, including digital cameras, power tools and lawnmowers.

Packaging the Power

Packaging the Power

PowerGenix’s home batteries are available under the Quantaray brand ($19.99 for four AA rechargeable batteries, plus charger) at Ritz Camera and under the PowerGenix name online, but the company’s primary customers are product manufacturers, such as Original Power, which supplies lawn and garden equipment to Sears and Wal-Mart, among others.

But a zinc-air battery is further in the future. Energizer has used zinc-air technology, which draws oxygen from the air as one of its power sources, in hearing-aid batteries since 2001. In January, Energizer introduced a flat, rectangular (rather than cylindrical) prototype for consumer electronics. The company claims that the batteries last up to three times longer than any lithium-ion or alkaline battery that is on the market and holds years of hearing-aid battery data to bolster that claim. Although no independent tests verify Energizer’s claims, Florida State University researchers found that zinc-air technology will deliver up to double the battery life of lithium-ion, although they caution that the batteries are at the mercy of ambient conditions (they dry out when exposed to outside air) and that their active life is short, so it would appear that Energizer’s claims are overly optimistic.

However, there are other problems with zinc-air batteries, starting with the fact that they are not rechargeable and typically contain toxic mercury. Of course, the biggest problem is that no portable electronic device is designed to house the rectangular zinc-air batteries. (A Swiss company, ReVolt, is working on a rechargeable zinc-air battery, but it, too, is rectangular and bound by the same constraints.)

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