Powering the Flexible World

Dr. Xiaoxi HeSenior, IDTechEx | 11-05-2018

From 2019 we will come to a world with flexible electronics and batteries to power these devices have attracted tremendous attention. These devices may require batteries with special mechanical properties or form factors.

Flexible Displays are Being Addressed Further

In 2018, the OLED industry will be worth $25.5Bn, rising to $30.3Bn in 2019. Over $15Bn has been invested in the OLED display industry from 2016 to 2018 with panel makers mainly based in China, Korea, Japan and Taiwan. The investment is coming from the need to differentiate products with better screens and new form factors, with plastic based OLEDs becoming the norm (in rigid format) leading to truly flexible OLED displays - foldable displays being the first commercial example of that.

flex1.jpg

Flexible displays from (left) Visionox and (right) BOE. Source: IDTechEx

Flexible displays require innovations from all their components, from the front panel, to the backplane, to the encapsulation. These innovations expand their capabilities and enable a world with flexible electronics.

Power Solution is Another Piece of Puzzle in this Flexible World

A significant portion of flexible electronics will be portable and battery is always one of the limiting factors in the development of portable devices. We all have the experience that our smart phone batteries cannot last for long enough and they have to be recharged daily or even more frequently.

From lead acid, nickel-cadmium, to nickel-metal-hydride and lithium-ion batteries, the development of the electrochemical energy storage device is slow. Lithium-ion batteries, as the mostly successful commercial battery system nowadays, have been widely used in laptops, mobile phones, tablets and electric vehicles. However, the development of battery technology does not follow Moore's Law as transistors and the improvement is very slow, which is due to the intrinsic limitations.

Now, we have proposed another requirement for the battery—we want to have flexible batteries to fit into flexible electronic devices. This makes the task even more challenging. However, the potential new form factors can enable more flexible arrangement of the batteries. For instance, if a battery can be curved or folded, a larger battery can be fit into the device and larger battery in general can last longer.

Complex landscape to navigate, both from technology and market point of view

There are in principle three big requirements:

  1. The batteries should be safe
  2. The batteries need to last longer/offer higher power
  3. The batteries should provide special form factor or flexibility

To tackle these targets players are approaching from two different angles. They can start from traditional electrochemistry and explore new value propositions, or they can start from the special properties and form factors and increase their performance.

Therefore, we can see various technologies on the market. The marketing terms make integrators and end users more difficult to assess them. We can see batteries are categorized based on their mechanical properties, such as flexible batteries, stretchable batteries, rollable batteries, bendable batteries, foldable batteries. Batteries are classified by technology, including solid state batteries, lithium manganese batteries, alkaline batteries, silver zinc batteries, nickel-metal hydride battery. Their special form factors make cable batteries, needle batteries, micro-batteries and large-area batteries available. To address the manufacturing method, "printed batteries" show up in the press release quite often.

flex2.jpg

Various batteries - Image sources: ProLogium, STMicroelectronics, Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal, Showa Denko Packaging, Samsung SDI, Theresa Chong/MEDILL, Enfucell, Imprint Energy, Arizona State University, Stanford University, Excellatron, ×Jenaxis exhibiting at theIDTechEx Show!Santa Clara Convention Center, CA, USA14 - 15 Nov 2018Jenax, LG Chem, ilika, Blue Spark, BrightVolt, Qinetiq, Panasonic, Flexel

IDTechEx has been observing this industry since 2014 and we can see how complex this industry is and how different it is compared with traditional battery industry. Geographically, more start-ups show off their technologies in Europe and North America. Big players in east Asia are speeding up the manufacturing.

flex3.jpg

Patenting activities by year from the top players. Source: IDTechEx

Targeting the right applications The key for thin, flexible and printed batteries to succeed is to target the correct application, based on the capabilities and limitations of the battery. For instance, micro-batteries with a few mAh capacity are not sufficient to power a smart phone. A flexible battery based on traditional lithium-ion chemistry may turn out to be difficult to be miniaturized into a tiny device.

flex4.jpg

Various targeting applications of thin, flexible and printed batteries. Source: IDTechEx

Top image: Wikipedia