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Home > Tech Reiews > Emerging Technology Report
Emerging Technology Report #20: August 26, 2002

R&D Continues to Fuel the Development of Advanced Power Supplies

- Summary -

Global Emerging Technology Institute

The success of the development of markets for portable electronics, especially those with a wireless function, depends several key factors, including the ability to further miniaturize and integrate component parts, reduce the costs of produce those components and on their power supply. It has become a very important focus of R&D activities for a variety of companies. Due to the increased functionality and importance of the systems to the user, the independent and failure free function of the power supply is becoming more of a critical factor. The commercial and military application for new novel long-life power supplies will span a number of industries, including PDAs, cell phones, camcorders, notebook PCs and medical devices, automobiles, and home-use cogeneration systems.

Along with serious R&D efforts, the development of the power supply requires global alliances of developers, manufacturers and end user groups. A number of different types of power sources are being developed and include polymer batteries, smart batteries, portable fuel cells, and super capacitors. Technologies such as thin film and various packaging technologies will be used to integrate and miniaturize power supplies for future electronic products that are being developed in unison with the aforementioned.

It has been recently reported that a number of Japanese electronics manufacturers, European and U.S. start-ups are developing long-usage fuel cells. Some technical challenges, which need to be overcome by these firms, include how to package and integrate very small-scale batteries and fuel cells. Firms are investigating such solutions as piezo foils and the potential of solar modules for autonomous power generation of Microsystems. Wafer level packaging of the electronics of the battery or power source presents another challenge on the technical side. As in many other industries, what drives the R&D focus is the potential for near-term commercialization of any innovation. The existing cell phone market in Japan.

In Japan, such firms as Casio Computer Co, Ltd and Toshiba Corp are ready to start marketing commercial fuel cells within the next two years for the cell phone market. These firms are joining established makers of power supplies such as Sony, NEC and Hitachi. The proliferation of competition in Japan to develop next-generation power supplies directly relates to the country's comparative advantage in consumer electronics. This is not to say that firms in other country's that produce advance consumer electronics will not also make their mark in this field. German and Korean companies are also expected to excel in the area. Though the U.S. does not have market leaders in the consumer electronics sector (excluding companies which have valuable brands but outsource their R&D, manufacturing and sometimes assembly), there are a number of firms that are very competitive on the innovation side. However, in order to commercialize these innovations it will be crucial for them to develop alliances with the relevant manufacturers, most of which are located overseas.

The first generation of advanced power supplies, like the lithium-ion battery, will soon be replaced by fuel cells and the like that do not require replacement or recharging and have high output densities. Size is also an important factor to consider, as more advanced equipment requires the use of more components and limitations on real estate (i.e. size of the entire finished product). For the cell phone market, for example, advances in fuel cells and the ability to miniaturize component parts would have a very immediate and lucrative impact on the growth of next-generation cell phone services. Demand is expected to be high for not only the existing based of 2G and 2.5G (internet) wireless subscribers of the competing wireless carriers, but these new fuel cells could be expected to fuel the subscriber growth of next-generation 3G services in Japan. One of the limits to that growth has been the failure to develop a reliable new type of power source which can handle the advanced applications expected to generate revenues such as video conferencing and the playing of entertainment videos. These applications consume a relatively large amount of power and tax existing batteries. In first-generation 3G phones, the power source can become depleted in less than an hour of usage. Potential uses for medical devices and healthcare equipments is also expected to proliferate and lead to new types of products. For example, it is expected that miniaturized devices which will monitor vital body signs and accumulate biological data that also incorporate a wireless function permitting the unit to transmit data will require the same type of long-lasting power source.

In the future, further advancements in power source development will incorporate nanotechnology. For example, the supercapacitor is fundamentally based on nanotechnology. This is an emerging technology for portable products and other sectors. Public sector funding is supplying the means for R&D projects in this area and there are a number of firms seeking to produce breakthroughs. Supercapacitors are a cross between traditional capacitors and batteries. Current capacitors have a limited capability to store energy, like existing lithium ion batteries, and have very limited capacities to deliver that energy quickly and efficiently. Supercapacitors combine battery-like energy storage with capacitor-like power discharge, and can be used either standalone or in conjunction with a battery. New research has initially confirmed that carbon nanotubes, tiny tubular structures composed of a single layer of carbon atoms, would lengthen the life of batteries.

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