Why you should care

Because we love our electronic gadgets, but not waiting so long for them to charge.

Starbucks is promising to make wireless cell phone charging a norm. But while the coffee giant would love it if we sat for hours juicing our iPhones — while getting caffeinated and pumping up the company’s bottom line — most of us just wish that our devices charged faster.

Good news: Emerging technology promises that we might soon be able to power our phones in 10 minutes instead of a few hours. Researchers at the University of California, Riverside have come up with a new architecture for lithium-batteries that could make speedy charges for portable electronics a reality. You can find lithium-ion batteries in everything from your smartphone to your laptop to electric vehicles, and it comes down to how they’re built.

Hand holding a lithium-ion battery.

Lithium-ion batteries represent the future in automotive battery propulsion.

The researchers say current lithium-ion batteries are limited. In electric cars, batteries are a huge part of the vehicle’s mass. “And the size of batteries in portable electronics limits the trend of downsizing,” they added. So the idea is to make them smaller and lighter while amping up their abilities.

The UC Riverside scientists want to replace graphite anodes with silicon anodes in lithium-ion batteries. (Anodes are a key part of how batteries work.) What that means in less-scientific jargon is that silicon would improve a battery’s total charge capacity. According to the university, the researchers’ approach is designed to deliver a battery that is 40 percent lighter and smaller with potentially 63 percent more total cell capacity.

In the time it takes you to start scrolling through your Twitter feed, your battery would be charged.

Wei Wang, the lead author of the research paper, told OZY that they’ve used this new technology to demo charging portable electronics in 10 minutes. And they’re currently working with industrial partners to commercialize the technology. But while Wang says silicon tech is “very promising,” he notes it still has issues and must be engineered to work better. It’s also too early to know if it would produce batteries that are cheaper or more expensive, but according to Wang: “It is definitely scalable.”

And if you’re thinking that a 10-minute charge is impressive, consider this: Earlier this year, an Israeli company claimed to have prototyped technology that could charge a cell phone battery in 30 seconds. Imagine that in the time it takes you to start scrolling through your Twitter feed, your battery would be charged. And last year, an 18-year-old student developed a supercapacitor (an energy storage device) that could charge a phone battery in 20 to 30 seconds. A Japanese company recently announced that it had created a “dual carbon” battery that can be charged 20 times faster than regular lithium-ion cells. And there’s buzz about incorporating a material called graphene so batteries could reportedly be submerged in water.

Looks like better batteries powering better gadgets are a clear given in our lifetime. But the question remains: What will happen to all the discarded batteries after we’ve charged them to death? Something worth pondering when the battery from a single cell phone can supposedly pollute 60,000 liters of water — more than a month’s supply for the average American family of four.

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