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Portable Power

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About This Technology

April 2013

Despite battery technology's lack of glamour or excitement, it has maintained its position as the predominant power source in portable and handheld applications for several decades. But now a new generation of wireless devices and portable-entertainment products is making power demands that even the more advanced battery chemistries—NiMh and Li-ion—are finding difficult to meet. Reductions in operating voltage and low-power processors have done little to offset the problem as device designers continue to enhance their products with extra features and capabilities. In addition to coping with increased functionality—such as color displays, speech-recognition capability, embedded MP3 and video players, and cameras—batteries are also having to cope with significant increases in voice and data traffic, as location-based services, electronic banking, and Internet access increasingly become standard offerings in handheld devices. At an even smaller scale, the development of miniature remote-sensing and microelectromechanical systems is also creating a need for miniature energy sources that can power microsize devices independently or become an integral part of devices through the use of thin-film-fabrication technologies.

Batteries are currently the most common energy source for portable applications, although considerable research effort and funding are centering on alternative power solutions that will solve the portable energy needs of the future. This research is investigating the potential of a range of energy sources, including kinetic, solar, vibration, electrochemical, thermal, and biological technologies and spawning the development of new energy devices that include micro fuel cells, microengines, and biofuel cells. In addition to assessing how conventional batteries can remain competitive in powering future portable and miniature devices, this Technology Map discusses the commercial potential of alternative technologies.

If manufacturers overcome the barriers to commercialization, alternative portable energy sources will provide strong competition to conventional primary and secondary batteries in OEM and retail markets for powering consumer-electronics devices. And as manufacturers increasingly integrate power sources into devices at manufacture, markets for replacement batteries will also decline. At stake is a multi‑billion-dollar global market for portable power that offers explosive growth prospects as portable devices continue to take hold.