What’s the secret ingredient in tomorrow’s smartphone battery?

Testing a prototype of a new lithium-ion battery at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. (Oak Ridge National Lab/Flickr)

Today’s electronic devices are more powerful than ever. But they all have one thing in common: They’d be even cooler if they had better batteries.

The race is on to develop the best power source for the next generation of electronics, medical equipment and vehicles. The ideal battery also would act as a supercapacitor — a special kind of battery that delivers a quick energy surge. Your laptop computer uses a battery; an elevator relies on supercapacitors.

Believe it not, one promising battery uses a secret ingredient: paper. Made of carbon nanotubes and a sheet of paper, it’s flexible, thin and environmentally friendly. And it also works as a supercapacitor.

The challenge, says Dave Rich, a former engineering director at Paper Battery Company, is that combined supercapacitors and batteries have been too expensive, too big and too complex. Phone and other gadget makers already are experimenting with prototypes of the new, paper-based power cell.

Yes, you can drive it up to 425 kilometers on a single charge. (© AP Images)

Competitors are trying other strategies to replace today’s lithium-ion battery. Among their strategies:

  • A lithium-air, or “breathing,” battery in which oxygen sucked in serves as a lightweight cathode.
  • A solid-state battery in which both electrodes and an electrolyte are solid.
  • A sodium-ion battery that uses saltwater as an electrolyte.
Bouncing this blender activates its kinetic energy batteries. (Courtesy photo)

More advanced concepts include organic and nano-batteries.

Shriram Santhanagopalan of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, believes scientists are getting closer to a game-changing energy-storage technology.

“The future for batteries is bright,” he says.