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Charger heal thyself

For over a decade now scientists have been unable to find a battery chemistry of superior cost and efficiency to lithium-ion/lithium-polymer batteries.  As a result, a business that had seen a series of quantum leaps in prior decades has been reduced to slow improvements in battery density and efficiency.  Progress has been made, but remains sluggish, as it depends on subtle tweaks to the finer chemical details and the electrodes.
 
The electronics industry has survived this stall, in part given the ever shrink power requirements of mobile electronics.  But today the primary power draws in a mobile device are stalled for different reasons.  Circuitry is running into leakage performance barriers that are increasingly offsetting die shrinks.  Displays, meanwhile are suffering from cost issues that prevent the industry from rapidly deploying lower power alternatives to liquid crystal, such as OLED.
 
I. Charge Anywhere
 
As a result the pressure is on to think outside the box and provide novel new solutions outside the mere power efficiency and battery refinement frame of reference.  One such solution is alarmingly simple -- just charge your device more frequently.
 
Charging your device more often allows for smaller, thinner devices that run cooler and have less flammability risk.  But current chargers make smaller batteries a headache -- instead the trend in mobile devices is to pack bigger and bigger batteries onboard.  The root reason for this trend is that charging is, simply put, a pain.
 
Thus a couple companies have committed to coming up with smarter charging solutions in order to both curb the mega-mobile battery trend and to compensate for power shortcomings on the hardware and battery front.
 
One solution that's rapidly approaching is magnetic resonance charging.  Relying on electromagnetic phenomena first explored by Nikola Tesla in the late 19th and early 20th century, this new charging tech is more flexible than current wireless chargers, which rely on induction.
 
Unlike the inductive chargers, which require you to lay your device directly on a charging pad, resonant chargers can charge your device from inches away.  That makes them suitable candidates to be incorporated into furniture (e.g. tabletops, shelves) and other locations (e.g. a car headrest or seat), raising the potential of an eventual ubiquitous wireless power transfer solution for mobile devices -- something Nikola Tesla dreamed of a century ago.

Rezence Power

Leading the charge to commercialize magnetic resonance charging is the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP), which just released a new industry standard, the Rezence Baseline System Specification Version 1.2 (BSS V1.2) in July.  The group recently surpassed 100 members for the first time.  It is led by some of the world's largest chipmakers -- Intel Corp. (INTC), Qualcomm Inc. (QCOM), and Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd. (KRX:005930) (KRX:005935).  Of the major mobile chipmakers, NVIDIA Corp. (NVDA) is the only major player not involved in the project.
 
The technology is not as simple as you might think.  Resonance chargers need to tune their fields to nearby devices in order maximize efficiency.  Using a combination of largely Qualcomm and Intel patents, the new Rezence spec offers a complex set of fixes to allow a single charger to target multiple devices at high efficiency.  The new spec draws 22 watts on the transmitter side and supports charging at 3.5 and 6.5 watts on the receiving side -- enough for virtually any smartphone.
 
Upcoming chips from Samsung, Intel, and Qualcomm will contain circuitry that will communicate with the charger, allowing support for a higher number of devices and/or faster charging.  The coalition is also working on two upcoming specifications -- BSS V1.3, a higher power spec. for tablets/laptops/etc., and BSS V1.4 a spec for low power wearable devices.
 
In a recent interview with CNBCMark Hunsicker, senior director of wireless power solutions at Qualcomm explained:

We want to eliminate battery anxiety.  You should no longer have to worry about turning Wi-Fi off or Bluetooth off.

In the future the technology may allow three friends to sit down at a working lunch at lay their laptops and smartphones on table, and all six devices will be simultaneously charged, so that by the time they leave they will have enough power for their commute to the next meeting.
 
It took a couple of years for wireless inductive charging to pick up steam after the specs and hardware became available.  Hence you may not see these kinds of "drop-and-go" charges in the next year, outside of a handful of devices.  But in the next 2-3 years expect them to become relatively common.  Ubiquity will take a bit longer.
 
II. Charge Faster
 
The other option when it comes to eliminating power concerns via charging is to cut the charging time.  From a simplistic view you can charge faster, simply by upping the charging power.  But in the real world you are limited not only by the power constraints of your charging spec., but also by device longevity concerns.  Charge too quickly, too often and your battery would traditionally deteriorate and die much sooner.
 
A number of companies including Intel and Qualcomm have also fielded proprietary "fast charging" solutions, which resort to various tricks to get around these concerns.  One solution is to simply only use fast charging when a very low battery charge is detected.
 
Even more promising and intriguing is new technology from Qnovo, Inc. Founded in 2009 in Newark, Calif. Qnovo, like early wireless power startups, was among the first to see the writing on the wall in terms of slowing power efficiency progress.  Now its fast-charging technology is reaching maturity at just the right time.
Qnovo charges faster

Qnovo describes its technology, writing:

Qnovo’s electrochemists realized that most of the damage to batteries occurs during charging. By applying a more intelligent charging process, this damage could be minimized. Rather than charging with a simple current, Qnovo injects a series of charge “packets”, followed by measurements to determine the battery’s state-of-health. Modifications are then applied to simultaneously minimize charge time and cell damage.

This process is repeated hundreds of times each second throughout the life of the battery. Your battery has good days and bad days, just like you do. With intelligent charging, Qnovo recognizes not only when your battery can be charged faster, but also when it should be charged a little more slowly to ensure it will last. You will probably not notice the difference, but your battery sure will!

The adaptive nature of Qnovo’s patented closed-loop algorithms uniquely optimize the performance and lifetime of each individual battery. It turns out that no two batteries are born alike, nor perform alike. Even two cells made on the same day can perform substantially differently. With Qnovo’s adaptive feedback, battery performance is more consistent, meaning all users enjoy a better battery experience. Qnovo products are patent protected...





The promising startup is looking to license its technology to smartphone makers.  Why should they be interested (and why should we be)?

This infographic and graph pretty much says it all:
Qnovo charging
Qnovo graph

In other words, Qnovo's tech (claims) to be able to allow your battery to charge three times as fast without risking damage.  The technology comes in two forms.  The first is a hardware solution which it calls the QN200.  The second is a wholly software solution which estimates battery life/health based on the cruder "fuel gauge" estimates Qualcomm Snapdragon chips give.  The software version uses a history of battery life info to try to analyze and diagnose whether the battery is healthy enough for faster charging.  This solution is called QNS.  

QN200 is the better solution, but QNS is more flexible allowing much of the gains of QNS' tech with limited hardware dependences.  QNS may not work on all chips, but given the ubiquity of Snapdragon mobile SoCs, it's about the closest thing as you'll get for now to a universal solution.  Unfortunately right now Qnovo does appear to have plans to directly distributed to consumers (à la Cyanogenmod) so you'll have to likely rely on carriers and/or OEMs to license the tech and give you access.  It's possible Qualcomm/Google Inc. (GOOG) or CyanogenMod may directly license this technology, though and incorporate it directly into the base Android firmware for Snapdragon SoCs or in a replacement firmware.
 
It's offering licensing to battery makers, charger makers, smartphone makers.  So, whether it's charging faster or charging anywhere, you may be able to soon get by with a smaller battery, thanks to these innovators.

Sources: Rezence [1], [2], Qnovo, CNBC





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