Power management is becoming a critical feature of battery technology, for cars as well as laptop computers and cell phones, says Allen.
Design News: What is the major activity in the automotive industry today in regard to battery technology?
Allen: One of the major issues in automotive and heavy-duty trucks is the move toward more electronics. To provide the energy for GPS, higher-voltage headlights, and computers, the industry is working to move from 12 to 42V batteries. The latter will enable engineers to provide higher power with less current and consequently shrink wires to save cost and weight. It's a major architectural change in automotive electronics. There could be multiple batteries, one for starting, one within the doors, one for reserve, etc. It points to a decentralized, higher-voltage approach. Engineers will have to provide power management across the whole system.
Q: What are the major concerns of manufacturers of portable devices such as laptops in regard to battery electronics?
A: We make smart-battery electronics chargers and battery algorithm software. Our customers are battery manufacturers, among others. Engineers in those companies are looking for longer run times in batteries. They want to make sure that advanced chemistries like lithium ion are safe. They want to get costs down, and they want to use smart-battery data to do predictions. Smart-battery ICs create data about battery state and enable engineers to manage power drain. They use software to manage the power, and they need very accurate battery-state information. Dumb batteries don't give them the information they need on battery state, and can provide 25-30% less runtime than smart batteries with enabled power management.
Q: What major engineering problems do smart battery manufacturers face?
A: They have to make sure that the core of their technology, the chip, reads analog information quickly. We also store models of battery behavior/mixed-mode technology on the chips and battery algorithms make that difficult.
Q: What is the Smart Battery Protocol?
A: In 1992, Duracell and Intel formed an alliance to establish data to store in batteries for power management. Intel created the SM BUS. In 1995, it became a standard and the SBS Forum formed. There are about 150 companies in the Forum now. The Forum created five major specifications that establish the smart battery data and the SM BUS. It's now the fundamental communications bus in notebook computers. This is a fairly narrow area of expertise. You have to know about batteries and hand devices. The Forum periodically runs packaging events where manufacturers who have designed new devices based on the bus can plug in to be sure their device works.
Q: What are the results of that work?
A: Run times in batteries are longer now for computers. Since the batteries also cost less, consumer costs are lower too.
Q: Globally, where are most of the customers today?
A: Most are in Asia. The U.S. market is smaller but growing. In Europe, they're buying computers from Asia. There are some smart batteries in hand-held cellular phones, but it's not as big a market now as computers.
Q: What are the most important applications?
A: Mobile computers, industrial computers, and military radios. We are also working on hybrid electric vehicles. There are also applications for cellular phones.
Q: How do you keep costs down?
A: Our chip is highly integrated. We do on one chip what others need four to do. We also use a new process technology to drive costs down. We believe we represent a 20% cost reduction for customers.
'Dumb batteries don't give information...' Prior to leading the effort to acquire Duracell's smart battery technology and establish Power-Smart Inc., Allen was president of the New Products and Technology Division at Duracell. He led that company's efforts to enter the rechargeable battery business. He established a rechargeable battery R&D initiative, a manufacturing and assembly operation, and a global OEM sales and marketing force. Under his leadership, Duracell launched a series of new nickel-metal hydride and lithium ion batteries for the portable computer, cellular phone, and camcorder markets. Prior to his tenure at Duracell, he held several management positions in new product development and manufacturing in the zinc air and automotive battery divisions of Gould Inc.