As consumers, we all have experience of being let down by batteries (think rusty Italian cars in the 1970s!). But thankfully the world of batteries has moved on: the global battery industry is today worth $71 billion and is estimated to be growing at nearly 5% a year.
Of this, broadcast batteries make up a tiny fraction but the manufacturers that serve the video market are a surprisingly restless group of technologists who are continually answering the call for more and more efficient products.
Looking back over the recent history of the video industry, it's evident that whenever there is innovation in the motor trade, the telecoms sector or the world of consumer electronics, broadcast battery manufacturers are never far behind. They clearly scrutinise every advance and implement enhancements in the power packs they supply to our industry. Power hungry early-adopters, broadcasters are always quick to latch onto the newest sources of energy whether it's nickel-cadmium, nickel-metal hydride or lithium-ion.
Did you know? Half the world's deposits of Lithium are to be found in the salt desert of Bolivia.
So while the main independent battery manufacturers such as PAG, Sony and IDX are all innovative companies, the broadcast market is a classic 'trickle down' model. It's rather like what seems to be happening in the camcorder world: developments in DSLR sensors are having a major impact on the more niche, specialist market of professional video cameras. The same is true for broadcast batteries.
"As a battery manufacturer, we have to be quick to respond to what's happening in the electronics market so that we can get new technologies to market quickly but safely. Our customers can never have enough power so it's our role to make sure that we can supply them the best and most reliable solutions. Developing power packs is about constant innovation. We have to continually accommodate the changing shapes, sizes and power needs of the latest production kit. Innovation, research and development are in our DNA." Says Nigel Gardner, Sales & Marketing Director at PAG UK.
Before looking at particular professional battery advances, it makes sense to get an understanding of the bigger power picture.
Fujitsu Laboratories is developing a "Hybrid Energy Harvesting Device" that can generate electricity from heat sources - even body warmth.
Clearly the history of modern electronics is not just about Moore's Law and the superpower status of the microprocessor. Laptops, mobile phones, iPads, Satnavs... none of this would have been possible without the input of chemists in battery labs. The progress these scientists have made is incredible: a 1983 mobile phone, the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X weighed 785g and boasted one hour of talktime. Compare this to the latest 137g iPhone with up-to 14 hours talktime. By refining the chemical reactions taking place, batteries have been able to shrink in size and weight while providing ever increasing hours of use.
We are still in the midst of this revolution. Now, as big business turns its mighty sights onto environmentally-friendly transport, energy is again the focus of attention. Progress is rapid: the maximum range of electric cars has increased from less than 50 miles in 1990 to an average of around 150 miles today. The good news for us is that this is still not nearly good enough for the mass market. The era of battery innovation has no choice but to carry on until electric cars can purr along for at least 300 miles.
Remember 1980's video cameras? They were as unwieldy as the first mobile phones and both required the use of external battery packs. Broadcast manufacturers developed leather belts to do the job featuring deep pouches for batteries and chargers.
It was in the mid-nineties, as the personal computing revolution began, that major advances in Lithium batteries started to happen. The new chemistry boasted no discharge requirement (ie recharge in any condition), almost 40% more power and 50% lighter than standard NiCd cells, no memory effect and better environmental credentials. Li-ion cells have had a major impact in the broadcast world as well as in the consumer electronics market.
Back in 2001, PAG launched its first Li-ion battery as cameramen started using laptops powered by Li-ion and immediately appreciated the weight saving. "Our R & D department undertook extensive testing before we took on Li-ion and its benefits were clear. Li-ion has been a major step forward for camera operators with few drawbacks." explains David Hardy, PAG Quality and Technical Director.
The Next Big thing?
There is considerable excitement about nanowire technology. Electrodes made of carbon-silicon nanowires can store six times as much charge as the graphite electrodes in lithium batteries. Nanowires (each is seven-thousandth the thickness of a human hair) offer greatly improved capacity combined with reliability and a long shelf life.
Improved chemistry has indeed played a large part in making today's batteries more reliable and longer lasting. But critically it's also down to enhanced power management through advanced electronics. Power management circuits are a crucial part of battery design. Where electricity and combustible material is involved, it is imperative to avoid over-charging, power spikes or power drainage. So important are these factors that manufacturers such as PAG implement designs with up-to 3 layers of protection circuitry rather than the required single layer.
This fits the human psyche that has a peculiar tendency to be cautious and to be prepared for the worst case scenario when it comes to batteries! Production teams often grossly over-estimate the number of packs they need. It is not unusual to see a camera bag containing a single camcorder, a couple of memory cards, a light and then 3-4 batteries - enough power for hours more shooting than is actually required.
The reality is that today broadcast batteries built to best practise standards are highly durable, reliable and should be trusted.
In terms of actual output, in the last few years there have been some very real advancements. A glance over some technical specs show some pretty good progress - a typical 14.8v Li-ion unit from 2003 would provide 75 Watt hours. Today, the same size unit is capable of running for as many as 110 Watt hours. "I imagine a 150 Watt hour battery can't be more than a couple of years away." Said PAG's David Hardy.
But how to recognise a truly quality product today?
It is true that nearly all the cells found inside broadcast batteries are sourced from one of a handful of manufacturers in the Far East. The likes of Sanyo and LG Electronics are continually refining existing technology and developing new chemistry to make the next big breakthrough. The technical developments they have already released have produced excellent cells that laid the platform for significant improvements in batteries.
Ceramatec claim that a battery using their ceramic technology could store 40 kilowatt hours of energy in a unit the size of a fridge.
However, when it comes to batteries, rather than invest in reliability, today's thrust for cost savings has opened the door to products that emphasise value over performance. These batteries often take advantage of lower grade cells that offer a shorter life span and are prone to internal shorts or contaminated electrolytes. As the TV industry looks to make savings wherever it can, these low-quality products have started to enter the European market. Buyer beware!
What's more, the cells themselves are only part of the story. Cell protection, robust casing, electronics, power management, capacity reporting, charge limiting, cooling, material testing - all these aspects are crucial to ensuring that camera operators have the power they need, when they need it. In order to protect the user and their camera equipment, reputable battery manufacturers today deploy a number of sophisticated features: multiple protection circuits, electrolyte-impermeable materials, high-impact cases and even built-in RF resistance. These are all areas where corners can be cut - but at what price?
The leading battery manufacturers have maintained their core values, in order to give users confidence in the performance of their units. Take power monitoring as an example. Accurate reporting of the charge remaining has been a holy grail for the industry. It took companies such as Sony and PAG years to develop their systems to give meaningful feedback to the camera crew. Today it is possible to achieve accuracy down to one minute.
"Knowing the exact status of a battery gives the camera team confidence in their equipment and helps them make correct decisions. It tells them when they don't need to take an additional pack or charger so directly saves time and money. Solutions with vague power indicators are cheaper but they may not make economic sense." Explained Hardy from PAG.
Take another case: airline restrictions limit the types and quantities of batteries permitted on certain flights. Researchers are now investigating ways of producing generic power systems for a range of broadcast equipment which do not conflict with transportation restrictions. "It's not a simple matter, but we're close to the answer." Commented Hardy from PAG. High capacity batteries are already being produced that do not comply with airline policy and for most shoots this will not be a problem. But those production teams that want to invest in power that can be used at home and abroad will find the bedrocks of the industry innovating to find solutions.
Companies can purchase cheap power packs that last only a year. These batteries may only be able to withstand modest knocks and have limited protection against electrolyte leak. However, if camera operators want to go on benefiting from continual innovation, research and development that produces ever safer, more powerful, more reliable batteries, then they would be wise to invest in those manufacturers and developers that have built a reputation for doing so.