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New Battery Technology Promises More Power And Mobility

Researchers look to fuel cells, mini gas turbine engines, and new chemistry to provide more juice to mobile devices

In the world of mobile technology, we treat constant improvement as our birthright. Notebook computers, music players, PDAs, and cell phones must always get smaller, while adding features, speed, and memory. But one area isn't keeping up: batteries.

Laptop batteries have been in the spotlight recently for catching on fire, thanks to manufacturing problems at Sony that have led to a recall of more than 6 million batteries. Once that smoke clears, as it likely will, we're still stuck with the fact that our ability to digitally work (or play) is severely limited by how long our batteries hold a charge. And, unfortunately, that hasn't changed much in recent years. There has been some improvement in the running time of batteries that power notebook computers, cell phones, portable game players, PDAs, and other devices, but not enough. And significant advances aren't in sight.

This is an area of technology begging for a breakthrough. That's why some believe that the computer, communications, and consumer electronics industries need to move away from batteries as we've known them and find new ways to power all the mobile devices people carry around. Some of the ideas seem, well, unusual. How about a hydrogen fuel cell in your cell phone? Or a mini gas-turbine engine in your BlackBerry? These are still far-off notions, but it's going to take this kind of daring experimentation to break out of the lithium-ion box that keeps us reaching for a power cord every few hours.

Turbine Engine On A Chip

MIT researchers are attempting to apply the growing field of power microelectromechanical systems to create tiny gas-turbine engines inside a silicon chip about the size of a quarter. The device in theory would run 10 times longer than batteries of the same weight and let developers create a smaller power source. The miniature microengine would be made using six bonded silicon wafers in which the compressor, combustion chamber, spinning turbine, and other necessary features are pre-etched into the individual layers of silicon. Inside the tiny combustion chamber, the fuel and air would mix and burn. The turbine blades, made of microfabricated materials, would spin at about 20,000 revolutions per second.

Roughly 6.7 million Sony lithium ion batteries have been recalled in recent months.
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"We have demonstrated that all the different parts work," says Alan Epstein, a professor in the department of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. "Now the challenge is to get them all to work together in the same place on the same day--the integration."

The miniature power-producing chips will be ready to demo within a year, Epstein predicts. After that, it will take three years or more for a business to use the technology to create a commercial product.

Such a power source, if perfected, will have to clear the hurdles that stand before any technology considered as a general replacement for batteries. Can hundreds of millions of them be manufactured every year at a price that competes with relatively cheap batteries? Will people want to carry around an internal combustion engine in their pockets or purses?

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