The Powers That Be

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 13 July 2004

The wireless industry’s biggest problem could become the world’s biggest solution.

Power – the ultimate hurdle. No matter how wirelessly we may be able to transmit our voices, text , images or even locations, we are still tethered to the grid for a few hours each day sucking the joules of energy we’ll need for our next outing.

No, Moore’s Law doesn’t appear to apply to battery life. While chips may double in processing power each 18 months, the additional power required to run them (most of which seems to end up as wasted heat, anyway) makes any corresponding developments in battery technology amount, in some cases, to steps backwards in realized talk or standby time.

In fact, according to recently conducted customer satisfaction research, “battery anxiety” has supplanted spotty coverage as the chief complaint of US cell phone users. But as our nervous attention shifts from those bars on the left of the LED screen indicating signal strength to those on the right measuring battery life, can the wireless industry – or our commodities-based economy, or physics itself – rise to the occasion?

If we’re to believe the R&D departments of equipment manufacturers from Texas to Tokyo, much-hyped fuel cell technology is just around the corner. While Nokia is already testing a coveted fuel cell-powered Bluetooth headset amongst its employees, Toshiba has promised a 10-hour fuel cell-powered laptop by the end of this year. Problem is, while fuel cells do use the air around them to oxidize the energy producing reaction within them, they require an occasional shot of methane, a gas stored under pressure. And methane just isn’t as available in the modern world as A/C current from the wall.

So this means keeping tanks in the conference room for employees and guests to top off their batteries, or carrying portable supplies of gas to refill on your own. Just don’t think about bringing your pressurized methane onto a commercial plane flight until the FAA is convinced these canisters are safe – or the “war on terrorism” is declared a victory.

A couple of battery companies are claiming to have developed next-generation fuel cells that don’t require their gas to maintained under pressure (a relief to those of us whose battery anxiety had more to do with keeping explosive fuel in a front pocket…) by exploiting new cell membrane fabrications that use passive absorption instead of forced gas. Others shoot methane directly into one side of the battery (the anode, for those who weren’t listening in class that day) using “neat” or pure methanol, minimizing loss to the system. But neither solution changes the fact that a volume of gas, under any pressure, is still a volume of gas. You might be able to carry around a can with ten full charges of methane, but eventually you’ll have to ask to pull in to the 7-11 for a refill.

That is, if the 7-11, gas station, cell phone shop or newsstand turn out to be effective and reliable distributions of combustibles. Although it shouldn’t be any trickier than selling Zippo fluid or butane, most cell phone users won’t make a leap until the distribution infrastructure is well in place. And the retail infrastructure no longer has the shelf space for products that may prove sellable at some point in the future. So that gambit may take a bit longer to resolve than even the R&D.

Our little quandary over finding enough energy to fuel our palmtops closely mirrors the obstacles facing the automotive and oil industries in their race to beat the bell curve of oil extraction, a race with potentially profound environmental, economic, and military repercussions. How long would it take – and how much money – to refit the world’s gas station with hydrogen or methane pumps? And how to shift an entire industry (one of the world’s most powerful) from a model of resource extraction, refinement, and commodification to one of synthesis and service?

The quest for power may ultimately turn into a battle against the powers that be: the institutionalized inertia of an energy industry that proves time and again, in any number of situations, that they’d rather fight than switch.

Unencumbered by such entrenched economic and geopolitical legacies, and dedicated to the notion of detachment from its very inception, the wireless industry may turn out to be in a better position to tackle the power beast – after which its insights and examples could be followed by its big-brother technologies such as the automobile and power plant.

To do so, however, it will have to battle its own demons, learning – for a change – to conserve its own attention and energy, and keeps its eyes on the prize. Spending the farm on fuel cells only to bring them to market at the same time that superior competing technologies like solid oxide fuels, Berkeley’s “mini-engines” or even proto-nano batteries emerge from the labs would be catastrophic, at least to those who paid for the former.

And there’s still a lot to be said for working the power equation from the other side. In the days of the first pocket calculators, versions that could work on watch-size batteries, or even solar power, were unthinkable. Improvements in chip efficiency, as well as the move from LED to LCD screens gave us five-dollar solar-powered calculators. If software writers took processor cycles into account when reworking their code, and if chip architects spent their effort remapping circuit paths rather than just adding to them, we might stand a chance of cutting consumption. Energy-efficient screen technologies are already in the works, as well.

Most promising, perhaps, are the many researchers looking at methods for passively absorbing, or harvesting , existing untapped energy sources, from the random movements of people’s bodies (in the fashion of an old self-winding watch) to noise, heat and low-level vibrations such as the refrigerator hum or street traffic. There’s a lot of wasted energy out there. And it’s free.

Which is precisely the problem. That’s why an industry like this one, with no stake in charging for power and everything to gain in breaking free of the powers that be, might stand the best chance of fixing an energy industry that wouldn’t fix itself if our lives depended on it.