Battery Chargers – Moving Towards Smart Chargers

Vishal Sapru, Research Manager, Frost & Sullivan

The battery charger market has matured over the years although recent technological developments have aided to a slight evolution of the market. As a result, newly developed markets include mobile healthcare products, in addition to environmentally influenced products such as electric vehicles (EVs). Evolving markets also include both the information technology (IT) and telecommunications industries.

Rechargeable batteries are increasingly used in portable products, motive power and consumer products such as vehicles, computers, cellular phones and photography equipment. This revolution in battery power has been made possible through a systems approach including smart microcontroller battery chargers, power conditioners and converters, and advanced batteries. With this technology transition, the market for chargers impacts the commercial and consumer electronics market, the automotive market and the motive power market, to name a few.

The focus, besides higher power output and increasing the longevity, has now shifted to making batteries and battery chargers environmentally friendly. Battery chargers that use renewable energy, namely solar, as the primary energy source are increasingly being researched and a majority of these are awaiting commercialization. The majority of the green battery chargers are applicable currently to portable applications. Solar or wind battery chargers for larger applications, such as automotive, and military, among others, are still limited and R&D is ongoing.

Types of Battery Chargers
The market has three types of chargers: conventional chargers, solar chargers and wind chargers.

Conventional chargers work by drawing power from a wall outlet and by supplying a constant DC power source to the battery being charged. A conventional charger is inexpensive and takes longer to charge to avoid over-charging. Over the years, the charger has evolved into different types, namely trickle charging, medium charging, fast charging and rapid charging. However, all of these types draw power from the grid.

Solar chargers work on the basis of the photoelectric effect. Solar cells are made from silicon, which reacts to sunlight. The energy from the sun is enough to disentangle the electrons and thus electricity is generated that can then be used to charge a battery.  Most of the solar chargers are still in their pilot phase and research is ongoing to match their efficiency to be on par with the conventional chargers.

It is a wind powered electrical generator that captures kinetic energy in wind.  This energy spins the turbine blades, which in turn spins an electrical generator. A wind charger works on the same principle of a wind tower, but instead of sending electricity to the grid, it sends it to the battery, charging the device.

The major issue faced by a green technology is the high upfront cost. The higher initial cost in turn translates to premium pricing, resulting in the low adoption of the product. Green battery chargers at the moment do not have the same efficiency as that of a conventional charger. The efficiency of a charger largely depends on the rate at which it charges, compared to a conventional charger. Battery chargers have a wide range of applications, namely automotive, portable and industrial, among others. Owing to the long recharge time and limited power output, green battery chargers have not been considered for the automotive and industrial sectors.

There has been a constant emphasis on green technologies over the last decade. However, consumers’ awareness is still low. Green battery chargers find the majority of their usage for consumer and IT applications.

Factors Driving the Growth of Green Battery Chargers
There has been significant growth in portable technology, namely mobile phones, laptops, GPS, e-readers and gaming devices. Most of these items are powered by rechargeable batteries and require frequent charging. A green battery charger that uses solar or wind energy gives the user mobility and access to an inexhaustible power source. This exponential growth in portable technology and the continual requirement for power has worked in favor of battery charger manufacturers.  This is moving the industry towards developing green chargers that are portable and at the same time potent enough to charge multiple devices at the same time.

The most attractive selling point for green chargers is the mobility aspect, which is likely to lead to its greater usage. It is convenient and accessible anywhere since these chargers do not require an electrical socket or plug to be charged. Customers can use them while on the move and in any kind of environment.

The US Department of Energy reports that the average American household electricity expenditure is around $1,500 annually, out of which 10 percent goes toward recharging products. The price rise has been on an increase in other parts of the world with energy bills almost up by 40 percent in most of the developed nations, mainly due to the increase in fossil fuel prices. Although the impact of the chargers on electricity bills is minimal, cumulatively the expense can be brought down significantly by charging through renewable sources.

In recent years, the Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS) groups have expanded. These market segments, generally composed of the upscale and well educated population, prefer goods and services focused on health, the environment, personal development and sustainable living. This transition in consumer preference has opened up wide opportunities for battery charger manufacturers to focus on greener technologies, namely solar and wind powered chargers.

Green chargers are environment friendly. They do not emit any harmful emissions and the materials used for manufacturing them are recyclable, as well as sustainable. For example, the Solio brand of chargers from Better Energy Systems, a leading solar charger manufacturer, uses 80 percent recycled materials for their products.

Technology Roadmap
The major focus for technological advancements is to bring down the cost and increase the efficiency of the chargers. Although there has been a sporadic development, mass commercialization of these products is expected to happen around 2020. Besides portable and telecom, charger manufacturers are concentrating on automotive and industrial applications as they are likely to constitute around 35 percent to 40 percent of the battery charger revenues.

Some of the other technologies being developed include Piezoelectric chargers, which have the ability to generate electricity in response to applied mechanical stress. Unlike wind and solar, these chargers are still in the research phase and are expected to play a significant role post 2015. The ulterior vision is to incorporate a piezoelectric flooring system for pedestrian and vehicular traffic, wherein electricity is generated on a constant basis. This technology is already being developed by the cleantech company, Powerleap.

USB batteries work on the same principle as a USB MP3 players and are charged when they are plugged into a computer, laptop or a powered USB hub. USBCELL by Moxia has 1,300 mAH of power with a few hours of charge.

Kinetic batteries, in principle, are similar to piezoelectric chargers. They are powered by the slightest movement and are currently used in the military. It is also used in watches.
Portable fuel cell power packs are the technology of the future and are expected to replace rechargeable batteries and chargers.

The Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits IIS has developed a novel voltage converter that can handle input voltages as low as 20 million volts. The goal is to recharge portable devices like MP3 players, wherein the electricity required by these devices can be generated from human body heat.

Global Hotspots and Emerging Geographies
North America
• Many green charger manufacturers are based out of North America, such as Solio, Global Solar, and Novothink, among others.
• Government promotion of renewable energy and energy storage, along with EVs, offers good opportunities for green chargers.
• The customer base is diverse and ready to experiment with new products and technologies.

• The leading region for renewable energy installed capacity, such as solar and wind.
• The consumers are environmentally conscious.
• Germany and Spain hold good potential as target markets for
green chargers.
• With the EV market gaining momentum and many governments offering incentives, green chargers for automotive applications might be an upcoming opportunity.

• Many Chinese and Taiwanese charger manufacturers offer their supplies at very low costs.
• The battery manufacturing hub is APAC, with even US and European companies having their factories in China and Asia.
• Environmental awareness amongst customers is low and end-users are more price conscious.

Competitive Landscape
Since the technology is nascent, green chargers have minimum substitutes in the market. However, this is expected to change with the advent of fuel cells for portable technology once parity is achieved in cost and efficiency. Most of the raw materials are sourced from China and Taiwan, thus reducing the manufacturing cost significantly. The bargaining power of suppliers, although low, is expected to have a significant effect on the price of chargers. Since most of the technology is in its pilot phase, the barriers to entry are very minimal. As the product is positioned on par with consumer electronics, one way to differentiate from competition is through pricing and brand equity. Competitive rivalry is expected to be very high. Brand equity and pricing play an important role in the purchasing criteria for consumers. Sustainability through improvisation is the only way competitors can ensure consistent growth in the market place. Green chargers are expensive compared to a conventional charger. They also take a long duration to recharge. The end consumers are critical stakeholders and, unless these issues are addressed, the market place looks less conducive for the manufacturers.

Green chargers are a nascent technology with sporadic developments across the globe. The prime focus of most of the manufactures is on the portable applications, namely consumer electronics and telecommunications. There has not been considerable development in the automotive and industrial applications space. However, with the advent of EVs, the scope for green chargers is expected to widen. Barring a few major players, the market is primarily dominated by Chinese and Taiwan manufacturers that are expected to impact the market with regards to quality and price. Green charger manufacturers at the moment are resorting to a “push” strategy. This is primarily because of lack of awareness amongst consumers.

Source: Frost & Sullivan research on “Opportunities for Green Battery Chargers”

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This article was printed in the January/February 2012 issue of Battery Power magazine.

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