Google Inc. has entered into the search for better performing batteries which can be used for expansion of power in electronics and other hardware systems.
In late 2012, a team led by former Apple Inc. battery expert Dr. Ramesh Bhardwaj began testing batteries developed by others for use in Google devices. About a year later, the group expanded to look at battery technologies that Google might develop itself, according to people familiar with the matter.
The group, part of the Google X research lab, is small, with just four members. A Google spokeswoman declined to comment or to make Dr. Bhardwaj available.
Google in recent years has moved into industries such as transportation, health care, robotics and communications, designing physical devices that require efficient batteries.Chief Executive Larry Page told analysts in 2013 that battery life for mobile devices is a “huge issue” with “real potential to invent new and better experiences.”
Dr. Bhardwaj has told industry executives that Google has at least 20 battery-dependent projects. The company’s latest self-driving car runs on batteries recharged by electricity. The first version of Google’s Glass Internet-connected eyewear suffered from short battery life, which the company hopes to improve. An effort to use nanoparticles to diagnose diseases relies on a small battery-powered monitoring device.
“Google wants to control more of their own destiny in various places along the hardware supply chain,” said Lior Susan, head of hardware strategy at venture-capital firm Formation 8. “Their moves into drones, cars and other hardware all require better batteries.”
Google joins many technology companies trying to improve batteries, including Apple, Tesla Motors Inc. and International Business Machines Corp. These efforts have so far produced only incremental gains, a contrast for tech companies accustomed to regular, dramatic leaps in the efficiency of semiconductors.
Emerging battery technologies promise bigger gains. Solid-state, thin-film batteries transmit a current across a solid, rather than liquid, making them smaller and safer. Such batteries can be produced in thin, flexible layers, useful for small mobile devices. But it isn’t clear whether they can be mass produced cheaply, said Venkat Srinivasan, a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.
At Google, Dr. Bhardwaj’s group is trying to advance current lithium-ion technology and the cutting-edge solid-state batteries for consumer devices, such as Glass and Google’s glucose-measuring contact lens, according to the people familiar with the matter.
In a February presentation to an industry conference, Dr. Bhardwaj described how solid-state, thin-film batteries could be used in smartphones and other mobile devices that are thinner, bendable, wearable and even implantable in the human body.
For a wearable device like Glass, he said, the batteries could help power energy-intensive features like video. For the contact lens, the technology is safer because it doesn’t use flammable electrolyte liquid, Dr. Bhardwaj’s presentation explained.
Other teams at Google are working with Chicago-based AllCell Technologies LLC on more potent batteries for four hardware projects, including Project Loon, the company’s effort to beam Internet signals from high-altitude balloons, people familiar with the matter said.
A Project Loon video from late 2013 shows Google engineers bundling AllCell batteries into the system’s power pack. Lithium-ion batteries perform poorly in the subfreezing temperatures of the stratosphere, where Loon balloons float. AllCell wraps lithium-ion batteries in a wax and graphite material that quickly absorbs heat and spreads it evenly, extending their life. Google is experimenting with specially formulated materials for better cold-temperature performance, Jim Morash, a Project Loon engineer said in the video.