Battery Technology: Is This the End of Lithium-Ion?
Buying a battery for your camera on a budget is a hassle. So, is it worth waiting for more efficient types of batteries to arrive?
There are some powerful forces impacting the battery industry right now. One is massive demand for batteries generally including EVs, personal technology, and increasingly residential charging. Another is the demand for greener battery solutions.
As for battery chemistry, there’s one clear choice for now—and for the short-term future—and that’s Lithium-Ion. But, the race is on to find a battery solution without rare-earth elements like Lithium and Cobalt, which are limited in supply and are mined in socio-political trouble spots like the DRC (Democratic Region of Congo).
The appalling conditions of that type of mining has earned the products made with these elements—especially Cobalt—the name Blood Batteries, mimicking the name given to the mining of diamonds in parts of Africa, including the DRC, as well as its toll on human life.
Lithium is found in countries like Chile, Australia, Argentina, and China. Sustainable mining is in everyone’s interest, but (and, in the case of EVs) companies like VW are being open about their attitude toward the use of Lithium, and the environmental problems there are in its extraction.
At the moment, there are around six new chemistries vying to be the new one that will take over from Lithium-Ion. The intent is that all six could work without the use of rare-earth elements.
Their performance would ideally be at the same level or higher than what we have now. Any more new product information is hard to come by for competitive reasons—all the battery manufacturers are racing to find the winning solution.
So, realistically, anything new is around four to five years away. In other words, don’t put off any buying decisions on the basis of waiting for a new type of camera battery.
Having said that, new batteries will always have new features on them.
Battery Technology for Creators
Battery tech doesn’t change much, as you can see. Once a chemistry standard has been reached like Lithium-Ion, it’ll take years to introduce another one. Because of that, the manufacturers are in a continual cycle of evolving what they already have.
This is driven by a video market that always wants more from their batteries—more power, less weight, longer lifecycle—which basically means your camera’s battery will last longer at an optimum charge.
So, we know that not all Lithium-Ion batteries are the same, they differ hugely in performance across the board, usually according to price. But, most batteries in the last couple of years offer different levels of smart technology. This means new features from USB Taps to charge your phone, air charging, and battery cell balancing. You pay your money and take your choice.
We talked to camera operator James Frater (The Witcher) who invested in some cheap batteries and regretted it. Frater discovered that they weren’t allowed on planes, which affected his access to international productions.
So, he changed to the Anton/Bauer brand, which has full ratification for air travel. His only other alternative was to get rental companies to organize batteries for his shoots.
Good vs. Bad Batteries
Like any product, batteries for the video world can be mainly split into two categories, and usually reflect two different kinds of customers.
You may just want a battery to do a job without considering it as a long-term purchase. Or, you’ll invest in batteries that might last you years, even through your own changes of cameras and lights.
As battery chemistries rarely change, you may be persuaded to invest in better models. In that case, you’ll be looking at better components to withstand electrical surges, rigorous safety regimes, energy-dense cells, and lighter batteries—PCBs are condensed as a result of the superior components that don’t need to populate the boards as much.
If there’s a downside to a battery that’s been designed to perform for many years, it’s that it doesn’t evolve from the day you buy it. Of course, that’s a lot to ask from any product, except for software-based technology.
The fact is that with long-term battery chemistries like Lithium-Ion, new generations of products will have the latest features on them.
Smart technology for batteries now feature LCDs that keep you updated about the health of the charge and additional information about the battery itself. The demand is always more information and more connectivity.
In the glacial speed of core battery development, the exit of rare-earth metals is approaching. The new chemistries will have a higher energy density so they can be lighter, which also means smaller.
The removal of precious ingredients like Cobalt should then result in less expensive batteries—in theory. But, this removal of Cobalt and Lithium might have to happen as there’s only a finite amount to excavate in the limited countries that mine them. There’s also a potential EU restriction on the amount of rare-earth ingredients in each battery.
Also, look out for cell balancing technology, which is well known in the EV market. Cell balancing is vital maintenance for a battery when cells may not be 100% the same. Some cells might be only off by 0.01% of a volt, which creates an imbalance in the cells. So, one could be working harder than another with a cumulative effect of shortening the lifespan of a battery pack.
This technology will automatically happen to your cells, so it’s not something the end user will have to worry about as it’s part of the cell management. Fast charging without damaging batteries is also something that will be more abundant in some next generation products.
Obscure New Technology
Among the more esoteric research for new battery charging is one via sound. This is more for consumer products—like phones, for instance. The idea is that vibration in the air, and the ambient sounds around it, will provide a charge.
It would never replace your normal charging, but would give you a small trickle charge for some connectivity. So, look out for people shouting into their phones for no other reason than to charge it.
Solar power will improve as a way of charging batteries. Up until now, their efficiencies have let them down because you need a higher conversion rate to get enough power into your charger. New products are coming to the market that are now better at converting that power or want that green solution.
There will be similar efficiencies for wind power and also manual cranking as converters improve.