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Battery makers juice up for on-the-go boom

As new generation of mobile devices takes over from traditional desk-bound PCs, battery makers eye opportunities.

Battery makers are charging up for a future of computing-on-the-go as a new generation of mobile devices takes over from traditional desk-bound PCs.

The battery boom is coming as slimmer laptops, some weighing as little as 2.6 pounds, are expected to overtake traditional computers in unit sales by 2009 in developed markets like the United States, according to International Data Corp.

Strong growth for other portable devices, such as game and music players, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and mobile phones, is also expected to propel battery sales as manufacturers look to squeeze more life out of their products.

A new kind of battery just entering the market, lithium polymer, can wring about 10 to 20 percent more life than lithium ion.

The move to mobility should lift major manufacturers such as Sony, Sanyo, Matsushita, Toshiba and Motorola, as well as second-tier players such as LG Electronics and a growing number of Chinese companies, such as BYD, analysts said.

Further down the food chain, the boom is expected to propel a new group of after-market players to the forefront as demand grows for replacement batteries once initial ones that come with a product lose their rechargeability.

In a world where weight and battery life have significant sway on buying decisions, the race is on to find newer and lighter technologies that can run for longer on a single charge.

"There are developments being made in improving capacity, but these are more evolutionary than revolutionary and there doesn't seem to be a major breakthrough on the horizon," said Alan Brown, an analyst at market research firm Gartner.

Most non-disposable batteries in portable devices use lithium ion technology, which can power an average laptop for up to six hours on a single charge and a cell phone for several days.

But those numbers can drop sharply for heavy users or energy-sapping functions such as watching DVDs or bright-screen resolutions for computers.

Dell, the world's biggest computer maker, is keeping its eye on new technologies that could extend the battery life of its laptops, said David Schmook, vice president of marketing for Asia. But change has been slow to come, he added.

"Lithium ion is what we have up and down our product line," he said. "The core technology hasn't changed in several years."

Keeping close watch on fuel cells
A new kind of battery just entering the market, lithium polymer, can wring about 10 to 20 percent more life than lithium ion, said Howard Tseng, global product manager for Burnaby International Technology, one of Taiwan's biggest after-market battery makers whose clients include IBM.

But these new batteries are around 50 percent more expensive, said Tseng, speaking at his firm's booth from the floor of Computex, the world's second-biggest computer show, in Taipei.

As a specialist in the fast-growing market for replacement notebook batteries, Burnaby has recently embarked on a major expansion campaign that includes the opening of offices in Germany, Japan, Canada and the United States.

The company, whose rivals include PortaPower and Battery Technology, also hopes to make an initial public offering in the next one to two years, said David Wu, Europe branch management operator.

While they remain focused on lithium technology, Burnaby, Dell and other industry players are keeping close watch on newer fuel cells, which are being developed on an experimental basis.

Such cells, more often associated with cars, use hydrogen or other fuels for energy and are refilled rather than recharged.

Wu said a fuel cell prototype on display at a recent trade show was about four times larger than today's typical laptop battery, which is about the size of a ledger book. But it also was said to run for up to an entire day, he added.

A Taiwan company called Antig is also developing fuel cells that would be the size of a CD-ROM drive, said Gartner's Brown. Toshiba has also developed a cell for use in PCs.

"But pricing, size and availability of refueling cartridges are still likely to be an issue," he said, adding that it was unlikely fuel cells would be viable options within five years.

Story Copyright © 2005 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.