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Corner Office from Marketplace

Why your cell phone battery life still stinks

Ben Johnson Apr 9, 2015
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The reviews for the Apple Watch have been mixed so far. One of the big complaints: battery life.

And it’s not just an Apple problem. The batteries that power most of our devices, from smart phones to laptops, are lithium ion batteries. Compared with Alkaline batteries that pop into TV remotes and flashlights, lithium ion batteries are fairly bulky, charge slowly, and drain relatively fast as they struggle to keep up with all the computing power that tech firms have stuffed into our devices. 

Lots of people are working to improve batteries, including Astro Teller, who recently spoke with Marketplace Tech’s Ben Johnson. Teller is the guy who heads up Google X, where his title is the Google-esque “Captain of Moonshots.”

Johnson asked Teller about one thing that would make a dramatic difference, among the array of R&D projects underway at Google X. No big surprise given our subject matter: batteries topped the list. But in true Moonshot Captain fashion, his goal is more than incremental improvement. 

“A ten-times increase in the weight-oriented density of batteries would enable so many other moonshots, if we can find a great idea. We just haven’t found one yet,” Teller said. 

So, why haven’t scientists and tech leaders found one yet? Unlike computing power, which doubles every 18 months or so, following Moore’s Law, batteries are slower to change. 

The short answer there, Johnson says, is chemistry. There is no equivalent to Moore’s Law in the world of battery chemistry. In fact, improving the battery is even less methodical than you’d think, according to Matthew Norden at MNL Partners, which also explores leaps in technological change. 

“That’s more dark art. It’s not quite a witch around a cauldron, but it’s close,” Norden says. 

Even so, the wizards at Stanford have a study out with some promising findingsResearchers made an aluminum smartphone battery that charges in — no joke — one minute. But Johnson warns it doesn’t last too long. 

The key characteristics to improve the device battery are safety, speed, and cost. 

“That’s the holy grail,” Johnson says. “Once we get a battery that has all of those things, then we will truly be in the future.”

For now, we’re stuck with two out of three. 

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