Power, Power, and Power

By Terry Calhoun

How many power cords are enough? I’m beginning to think that a typical working professional who needs to reliably use info tech at work, at home, and while traveling needs at least four power cords for their laptop. (1.) One to stay plugged in at home; (2.) one to stay plugged in at work; (3.) one to carry in their computer bag, and (4.) one to plug into a power source in a car or truck.

I would add in how nice it would be to have one with an attachment to fit into an airliner’s power receptacle, except that in the decade I have been flying with laptop computers, I have never actually located such a power receptacle. In my own system of belief, those things are more fantasy than reality.

In a recent article announcing that Virgin Airlines was joining Qantas in disallowing Dell and Apple computers to be taken on board planes with batteries in them, it is mentioned that Virgin would provide adapters for those “lucky enough to sit in seats with power supplies.” Yet another purveyor of the myth.

Even as I wrote those words above about leaving power cords plugged in while not using them, I worry about wasting energy. I have searched in vain for figures on how much energy is used up by a laptop power cable that is left plugged in but not inserted into a computer. Is it like an “instant-on” television set that uses power just sitting there? Maybe. On my power cords the little green light glows and that’s taking some power. If you are interested in batteries with regard to global energy concerns, check out the PESWiki (Pure Energy Systems) site on Batteries.

However, also at issue is time and opportunity cost for the individual professional. The number of times I have arrived at work, set up my laptop, and then realized that the power cord was at home, are innumerable. And in nearly every instance I have had to drive (or bike!) home and get the power cord, or know that I will lose my technology, including access to the Internet and e-mail, partway through the morning. When you average something like 100 e-mail messages incoming per hour, you can get really behind very quickly.

It’s similar to leaving my cell phone, to which all of my phones forward, at home. Although that d'es give me an excuse to not listen to voicemail for a day; that I can sometimes live with. It’s not quite as bad as arriving at work without any of my dozens of pairs of reading glasses. Certainly it’s as incapacitating in terms of productivity, but leaving the glasses behind will invariably result in a headache unless I bite that bullet and head to the parking lot.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a laptop battery that would last a typical work day, say 10 to 12 hours? Earlier this year, one of SCUP’s corporate members paid a visit to our office and I just happened to notice, after he’d been with us for a couple of hours, that his Windows machine said that he still had 6.5 hours of battery life left. One of these days I have to call him and find out how that could be.

The modern world of batteries as a technology and business started in 1800 with the discoveries of Alessandro Volta, who was “discovery racing” with many other inventors of the time. However, the archeological find known as the Baghdad Batteries may represent 2,000-year-old low voltage battery technology, possibly used for medical therapeutics or for metal plating.

The most common usage of the word “battery” prior to electrical storage devices was in describing “arrays of cannon” on land or on ships that could “batter” an enemy. It’s not that much of a jump to seeing that array of cannon as “stored power” and hence to Benjamin Franklin’s initial use of the term “battery” in 1748 to mean an array of power storage devices.

Of course, the biggest issue of the day is lithium-ion batteries exploding or burning due often to the presence of very tiny metal mini-shavings in the electrolyte from the manufacturing process. I suspect that many, like me, are ignoring the recall and assuming that we are not going to be “struck by lightning” if we just ignore it. We’ll see.

My mind often strays toward thoughts of “broadcast power.” However, I am immediately reminded of how quickly people in the 60s gave up on the solar satellites broadcasting free power back down to earth when they realized that, when slightly miss-aimed, those power sources could become serious weapons.

I was reminded of that last week when the head of the U.S. Air Force stated in a speech that before his service tried out so-called “nonlethal” microwave crowd control weapons on foreigners, they’d better look for an opportunity to try them out on U.S. civilians. Seriously, this deserves a quote:

"If we're not willing to use it here against our fellow citizens, then we should not be willing to use it in a wartime situation," said Wynne. "(Because) if I hit somebody with a nonlethal weapon and they claim that it injured them in a way that was not intended, I think that I would be vilified in the world press."

Strange world we live in, and some pretty strange people in power. I’ve been following the development of these weapons and during testing. They had to have people remove metal belt buckles, buttons, eyeglasses, etc., because those concentrated the power being broadcast and injured people.

I’m thinking that the test case for using the “nonlethal” weapon against American citizens – if it can’t be on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, of course – had better not be against folks in wheelchairs or with hip or knee replacements. So broadcast power is out for now – unless we can pull it from some other dimension. But even then we’d have to ask the folks who live there first if we can have some, right?

Anyway, the search for safer and longer-lasting batteries g'es on. Fuel cells, of course, are on the horizon. There was a brief media flurry about some advances with those early last summer.

One of the coolest advances is in “thin-film” batteries, which use solid layers of materials to separate active materials in the battery from each other. Their key advantage is safety. They can’t explode like lithium-ion, but they also (a) allow the use of pure lithium (more capacity) and (b) are relatively immune to climate effects (cold/hot) on their durability.

Thin-film batteries are expensive to make, especially in higher capacities. But manufacturers are already gearing up to first use them to support low-power sensors in hostile climates, and then to be used in consumer products, such as built into layers of automobile tires as a built-in power source for air pressure sensors.

On the present-day personal front, I tried carrying multiple, pre-charged batteries for my laptop around with me. But it’s a pain trying to ensure that your collection of non-inserted batteries is in fact charged up.

Plus, there are other problems designers haven’t thought of. Just before my last trip to Washington, my dog chewed up my extra Dell battery. That’s right, “the dog ate my battery.” (Didn’t get to the core, but destroyed it.) It’s a real situation, but it’s a terrible excuse for not being able to take the meeting minutes in a room full of suits.

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