Sony is building new battery chemistry to make smartphones last much longer

With lithium-sulfur and magnesium-sulfur, the company is aiming for a 40 percent efficiency gain by 2020.

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Sony is hoping to take new battery chemistry out of the lab and into actual smartphones within the next five years.

According to Japanese newspaper Nikkei, Sony is working on both lithium-sulfur and magnesium-sulfur batteries to replace today’s lithium-ion chemistry. The result could be a 40 percent gain in density by volume. Laminated batteries for smartphones would be the initial target product, with commercialization slated for 2020.

The problem with lithium-ion is that it’s approaching the theoretical limit for energy density. Phone makers can increase the battery’s size—which has already happened with the rise of jumbo-sized smartphones—and improve efficiency in other components such as the display, but they can’t make the battery itself any better. It’s a major bottleneck that will only get worse as smartphones become more powerful.

The only real solution is to develop new battery chemistry, but this has proven difficult outside the lab. Alternative chemistries tend to be less stable, and are worse at maintaining a high capacity through the hundreds of recharges that consumer electronics require. Beyond the technical issues, the process of testing and manufacturing new batteries for consumer use can be lengthy.

Nikkei notes that Sony hasn’t even ironed out the technical challenges yet, and that its lithium-sulfur batteries are still prone to “heat generation or ignition.”

Why this matters: While this is hardly the first claim of drastic battery life improvements from lithium-sulfur—or other alternative chemistries, for that matter—it's significant coming from Sony. Usually, announcements of better battery life come from universities or obscure startups, and are never heard from again. With Sony publicly revealing its plans for new battery chemistry—and Nikkei noting that “other manufacturers” are engaged in their own developments—there's reason to be optimistic that real improvements are coming.

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