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Aug. 26, 2015: IEEE Computing Now

Progress for New Products Enabled by Flexible Battery Technology

By Raghu Das

Thin, flexible batteries have been available for more than 15 years, but have only had limited commercial success. This is not surprising, since they have been more expensive, offer lower capacity and have a shorter shelf life than regular button cell or larger batteries.

As a result, manufacturers have tried to exploit their thinness and flexibility as a way to differentiate - doing something that regular batteries cannot do. And successes have been found in a small number of niche applications, such as powered skin patches, where the battery provides a voltage across an area of skin, opening the pores and allowing an anti-wrinkle cosmetic on the patch to be absorbed about 10 times more quickly versus non-powered patches (an effect known as "iontophoresis"). A patch applied to a face is only possible with an unobtrusive thin and flexible battery, and thus this created a new product category and price point: Here, the flexible battery was not a value-sell proposition but an enabling sell.

However, despite a few pockets of success, companies have been largely struggling to gain big commercial traction because new product categories need to be created instead of using the existing products as a replacement to cheaper, higher performing incumbents.

Conventional Battery Progress Is Lackluster

Additionally, it's not as though traditional batteries have been a triumph of rapid innovation: From lead acid, nickel-cadmium, to nickel-metal-hydride and lithium-ion batteries, the development of batteries has significantly lagged compared to many other components. For example, lithium-ion batteries, which are currently the most successful commercial battery system, have only seen a 1.6 times improvement in energy density over the last 24 years. Not exactly a follower of Moore's law on progress, it is extremely optimistic to expect the energy density of lithium-ion battery to increase another 30% in five years. Materials that can be chosen for the battery development are also limited. Companies see the challenge - and opportunity.

Apple, Samsung, LG Move into the Flexible Battery Business

Now the world's largest consumer electronics companies, such as Apple, LG and Samsung, have moved into the development of flexible battery technology; due, in a large part to the wearable technology market, which will help drive the flexible battery market from US$ 6.9 million in 2015 to over US$ 400 million in 2025. Wearable electronics and IoT devices will increasingly require battery attributes such as thinness, flexibility, light weight and low-charging thresholds to not just differentiate, but to create the new markets necessary to drive this technology forward. Indeed, they already have: The powered cosmetic skin patch from Estée Lauder, which uses a printed battery, is likely one of the earliest successes of flexible, wearable electronics.

More New Players in a New Market

But investment in flexible batteries is only one of the key areas of progress for truly wearable electronics. The first efforts have been to reduce the energy consumption of electronics, such as the CPUs and displays, in addition to making larger components c such as displays - flexible. Another direction has been to modify the charging method, such as integrating energy harvesting, rapid charging and wireless charging.

Now, huge emerging topics like wearable technology and IoT require different parameters for the battery, such as ultra-thinness, small physical footprints, flexibility and light weight, becoming increasingly prized.

While there is still progress to be made in both the performance of the battery technology and scaling up manufacturing, new products are appearing at a fast rate. In April 2015, Qualcomm unveiled a new product concept at the IDTechEx Printed Electronics Europe event (www.idtechex.com/peeurope) in conjunction with printed battery provider Enfucell. The product is a sensing label for golfers that provides information such as speed, angle and tempo of each swing by simply placing it on a golf club before the game. The sensor's electronics and battery form a single monolithic device that enables the data to be transmitted via an app on the golfer's phone.

In another example, printed battery provider Blue Spark Technologies has launched a smart band-aid known as TempTraq (pictured below), which reports a sick child's temperature to a parent's cell phone via a flexible band-aid powered by a flexible battery powering a low-energy Bluetooth circuit and sensor.

Source: TempTraq from Blue Spark Technologies

The $400 million market for thin, flexible batteries in 2025
Source: IDTechEx Research report Flexible, Printed and Thin Film Batteries 2015-2025 (http://www.idtechex.com/research/reports/flexible-printed-and-thin-film-batteries-2015-2025-technologies-forecasts-players-000410.asp)

Future Growth

As illustrated in the chart above, the current thin-film battery market will change radically over the next decade, with wearable technology capturing the largest market share.

Further details and insights are available in the IDTechEx Research report, "Flexible, Printed and Thin Film Batteries 2015-2025." (http://www.idtechex.com/research/reports/flexible-printed-and-thin-film-batteries-2015-2025-technologies-forecasts-players-000410.asp)

The Flexible battery technology landscape and applications are also a key focus of the co-located Printed Electronics USA and IDTechEx Wearable USA conferences and exhibition, which will be held in Santa Clara, Calif., Nov. 18-19.

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