You’re Stuck With Batteries—But New Tech Will Make Them Last Longer

Innovators are making devices that are more efficient while giving us new ways to recharge lithium-ion batteries

Original posted by Joanna Stern in The Wall Street Journal 

Cota Forever batteries (WSJ).jpegOssia’s Cota Forever batteries receive power over the air from a wireless transmitter behind it. PHOTO: JOANNA STERN / THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

 LAS VEGAS—Oooh, an adorable robot puppy! Two hours until he plays dead—for real. A cordless hair dryer! Hope you have short hair, it only lasts 14 minutes. A foldable electric scooter! When you forget the midweek charge, remember that hitchhiking is dangerous.

Some people see the future at the annual CES tech trade show. I see more batteries we will have to charge.

The biggest complaint people have about their smartphone? Battery life. For some it is even worse: a battery that slows down their phone.

You can blame our increased use of these gadgets or you can blame the lithium-ion batteries themselves, neither of which will change soon. The rechargeable batteries—found in everything from your telephone to your Tesla—don’t charge all that fast, hold less power as they age and, yes, can catch fire.

While batteries seem to be moving at a slower clip than other tech development, I’m encouraged by products and concepts I saw on display last week that address some of our biggest power problems.

Real Wireless Charging

If you want to use your phone while it charges, you are tethered to a wall like a dog on a leash. And it is even worse if you are using a wireless charging mat. What if, though, charging worked more like Wi-Fi? What if your phone received power while you were sitting on the couch scrolling through Instagram?

A handful of companies are working on it. While the underlying technology is different the premise is similar. A transmitter placed somewhere in your house wirelessly sends power to receivers embedded in everything from smartphones to thermostats.

WSJ Lightbulb Photo.jpegOssia's Cota technology powers a lightbulb without any wires. PHOTO: JOANNA STERN / THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

I got a look at Ossia Inc.’s Cota wireless power technology in Las Vegas last week. In one demo, a giant transmitter installed in a wall lighted up a lightbulb about 6 feet away. That same transmitter also powered special AA batteries, which powered a little LED light. Ossia says its technology can reach up to 30 feet right now, depending on transmitter size and the environment.

This premise is the absolute dream—if it doesn’t fry our brains. A competing technology, Energous Corp.’s WattUp, was certified by the FCC in December for charging up to 3 feet. Both Ossia and Energous say that their technology has been tested for safety.

The biggest obstacle right now seems to be getting the gadget makers to buy in to the technology—either because it simply isn’t ready for prime time or there isn’t an agreed upon standard yet. Both companies say they are in talks with top electronics makers.

Energous Chief Executive Stephen Rizzone said he expects to see consumer products with WattUp technology that can charge within that three-feet range before year-end. One potential product: a computer monitor with the transmitter built into the screen frame that can charge a mouse and keyboard.

 My take? I’ve been incredibly excited about this entire idea… for at least four years. (I saw a wireless power demos at CES 2015.) It is going to be years before this technology is in our most used gadgets. Apple Inc.,for instance, only just caught up with mat-based charging.