Moore’s Law and Batteries

A lot of people are familiar with “Moore’s Law”, the idea that performance in integrated circuits doubles about every two years. It’s named for Gene Moore, co-founder of Intel, who published a paper nearly a half century ago that noted the phenomenon and predicted it would continue for at least ten years.

It’s continued far longer than that, right up to the present day. It’s been generalized by the public into the erroneous belief that technological development on all fronts proceeds very, very rapidly.

There is no Moore’s Law for batteries. Improvements in battery development are almost entirely based on higher energy density and that’s limited by physics.

The first alkaline battery (the sort used in flashlights, for example) was invented in 1899 in Sweden. It took roughly fifty years for that technology to become commercially viable in the United States. Lithium batteries, the ancestor of the sort that are now used in a wide range of devices from hearing aids to cameras to the Chevy Volt, were invented around 1912. It was the 1970s before they became commercially available in the United States.

The last new battery development to become commercially available was the lithium ion polymer battery in 1996, nearly twenty years ago. There are lots of new designs being worked on but they may never be commercially viable. Some of the most promising involve nanotechnology. Some may become commercially viable. We just don’t know whether or when. It could be five years from now. It could be a century from now. We may have reached the end of the road. We just don’t know.

The point of this post is this: don’t plan on revolutionary new battery designs coming along every couple of years. Broadcast power is more likely than that.

1 comment… add one
  • TimH Link

    Moore’s Law, though, does help with battery needs: As transistors shrink, they need less power. Until about 2006, we focused on increasing speed; since then, Intel (and others) have started focusing on increasing power on a per-watt basis. I can see a point in a few years where more and more devices get ‘good enough’ processing power (this is already occuring in embedded systems), meaning power requirements fall over time. Similarly, we’re getting more efficient with display output in terms of lumens per watt, which helps with laptop/phone/tablet battery life.

    Cars, though, are a horse of a different color.

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