Opinion: Powering wearable devices – watch out for safety first

Opinion: Powering wearable devices – watch out for safety first

Technology News |
By eeNews Europe

However, the burning desire to rush such a high volume product to market before their competitors could leave manufacturers and consumers alike cursing that they have got their fingers burnt.

Apple’s experience with battery technologies has been chequered so far. Only this week a US schoolgirl was burned after her iPhone caught fire in her pocket .  A few years ago Apple suffered a lot of negative publicity surrounding the need to recall first generation iPod Nanos because of fears that their batteries could catch fire.

Portable devices that cause fires do not play well with consumers but they certainly make good TV. This week the BBC illustrated a story about the fire risks of counterfeit lithium ion batteries on airplanes by filming at a place called the ‘Burn Lab’ run by the UK’s Building Research Establishment (BRE).

Encouraged by the BBC film crew the BRE deliberately created a fault in a number of batteries by heating them up to 300°C. The result was predictably explosive but highly visual for the TV audience.

One cannot help wondering  what would happen if the power source of a wearable device such as a new generation smartwatch caught fire or exploded. So the pressure to get the power management of the smartwatch right first time is going to be immense.

This week rumours were flying backwards and forwards that Apple was considering equipping a smartwatch with the following:

a) A solar charging layer built into a OLED screen (which may or many not be curved)

b) A wireless charging solution

c) A energy harvesting technology harnessing kinetic motion

d) A lithium ion battery technology

e) A stepped battery technology

f) A flexible battery technology that couple with a flexible solar panel layer

and who can even rule out the possibility of

g) A combination of some of the above options.

Given the time pressures it is most likely that Apple will opt for a ‘tried and tested’ lithium ion battery option to power the iWatch although a stepped battery approach of some kind could be a distinct possibility. 

Tianjin Lishen Battery, Samsung SDI and LG Chem have all be touted as potential suppliers of batteries for the iWatch project. In 2013 LG unveiled the company’s stepped battery technology to power the G2 smartphone. The LG G2’s step design 3,000 mAh battery used SiO+ technology to maximize storage capacity and provide long-lasting efficiency, with a thinner profile than traditional batteries. LG used the GRAM chipset to save battery life with up to 20% less power consumption.

But don’t be surprised to find one of the other alternative charging technologies being used to help extend the battery’s lifespan.

A battery option is still the most likely frontrunner to power the iWatch and its rivals because it is hard to easily predict the safety of many new of the alternative power technologies. A faulty battery could potentially turn into a miniature explosive device.

Do we want the next generation of wearable devices to come with their own body armour accesories?  Of course not, so this means that the new products will have to be exhaustively tested by regulators before they are allowed to enter the market. Lithium batteries have their drawbacks including safety ones but the technology is at least field proven in a consumer environment.

Traditionally device makers have preferred to advance power management related design by adopting incremental improvements to power sources tied in with more ambitious development of energy-efficient chips and screens.  Battery technology developments or their power source alternatives tend to a move at a glacial speed compared to other main areas of circuit or system design.

Power has long been the Achilles Heel of Apple launch products. Power hungry iPads and iPhones have often been criticized by their users for their relatively poor battery performance. The limitations of Apple’s battery offerings have been one of the company’s biggest barriers to larger sales and profits.

Historically Apple have tended to rely heavily on developing increasingly energy-efficient processors and software algorithms to save power rather than directly develop battery technology to make it much more efficient and more durable. But the wearable device market looks like demanding a new mindset which Apple might find harder to achieve compared with the likes of Samsung which is a more diversified business used to adapting technologies from other industries.

With the smartwatch market being touted as some kind of new Holy Grail it is obvious that users are not looking for a device that will only work for a few hours between charges – a hitherto Apple frailty. Neither will they want a smartwatch that is clunky and chunky – take note Samsung. The Android-supported Galaxy Gear may have been the first to hit the streets but was heavily criticised for its chunky design and poor battery life – ouch.

Samsung is said to be looking at adding a curved screen to its next-generation smartwatch potentially the Galaxy Gear 2 which may show up in some form at MWC 2014.

Samsung is rumoured to be gearing to begin mass production of curved and warped batteries.  The Korean giant also revealed last year that it was aiming to develop solid electrolytes, instead of the liquid or polymer technologies used by traditional lithium-ion batteries.  The driving force is the desire to eliminate the risk of explosions and other safety problems relating to flexible electronics applications.

Ultimately ‘battery-free’ looks like being the new buzz word as far as wearable devices are concerned and solar charging and wireless charging are being tipped to become the ‘go to’ solutions for future generations. Although some ‘blue-sky’ thinkers are staking claims for piezoelectric based chargers and even methods of harvesting energy from TV, cellular and Wi-Fi signals that are already in the air.

Apple is already rumoured to be testing a wireless charging method using induction technology. Realistically solar charging and wireless charging still look quite a way off from commerical reality.

But in search of a ‘magic bullet’ Apple has been hiring power management engineers from companies like Tesla, Toyota and A123 Systems to dream up a solution. In 2013, Apple also acquired Passif Semiconductor, a start-up focused on developing low-energy communication chips.

The race to find a commerically acceptable alternative to a traditional battery or enable battery power to last longer may look like sprint at present but there is every chance it may become more of a steeplechase with quite a lot of hurdles to overcome.  With brand reputations at stake the really smart move is to watch out for safety first rather than risk introducing a power management unknown into the equation from the outset.
Whichever of the power solutions win through the development phase one thing that is for sure no manufacturer will want to hear a future TV journalist use the time honored phrase "Don’t try this at home" when presenting a news story about the consequnces of exploding wearable devices with their branding on it.

Related articles and links:

News articles:

Can gum reduce lithium ion battery fire hazard?

Copycat batteries threaten ‘increased fire risk’ on planes

What technologies to watch for in 2014? – Part 1

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