The Smart Battery

NOTE: This article has been archived. Please read our new "Inner Workings of a Smart Battery" for an updated version.


The battery has the inherit problem of not being able to communicate with the user. Neither weight, color, nor size provides an indication of the battery's state-of-charge (SoC) and state-of-health (SoH). The user is at the mercy of the battery.

Help is at hand in breaking the code of silence. An increasing number of today's rechargeable batteries are made 'smart'. Equipped with a microchip, these batteries are able to communicate with the charger and user alike. Typical applications for 'smart' batteries are notebook computers and video cameras. Increasingly, these batteries are also used in biomedical devices and defense applications.

There are several types of 'smart' batteries, each offering different complexities and costs. The most basic 'smart' battery may contain nothing more than a chip that sets the charger to the correct charge algorithm. In the eyes of the Smart Battery System (SBS) forum, these batteries cannot be called 'smart'.

What then makes a battery 'smart'? Definitions still vary among organizations and manufacturers. The SBS forum states that a 'smart' battery must be able to provide SoC indications. In 1990, Benchmarq was the first company to commercialize the concept by offering fuel gauge technology. Today, several manufacturers produce such chips. They range from the single wire system, to the two-wire system to the System Management Bus (SMBus). Let's first look at the single wire system.

The Single Wire Bus

The single wire system delivers the data communications through one wire. This battery uses three wires: the common positive and negative battery terminals and one single data terminal, which also provides the clock information. For safety reasons, most battery manufacturers run a separate wire for temperature sensing. Figure 1 shows the layout of a single wire system.

  Figure 1: Single wire system of a 'smart' battery. Only one wire is needed for data communications. For safety reasons, most battery manufacturers run a separate wire for temperature sensing.

The single wire system stores the battery code and tracks battery readings, including temperature, voltage, current and SoC. Because of relatively low hardware cost, the single wire system enjoys market acceptance for high-end two-way radios, camcorders and portable computing devices.

Most single wire systems do not provide a common form factor; neither do they lend themselves to standardized SoH measurements. This produces problems for a universal charger concept. The Benchmarq single wire solution, for example, cannot measure the current directly; it must be extracted from a change in capacity over time. In addition, the single wire bus allows battery SoH measurement only when the host is 'married' to a designated battery pack. Such a fixed host-battery relationship is only feasible if the original battery is used. Any discrepancy in the battery will make the system unreliable or will provide false readings.

The SMBus

The SMBus is the most complete of all systems. It represents a large effort from the electronics industry to standardize on one communications protocol and one set of data. The Duracell/Intel SBS, which is in use today, was standardized in 1993. It is a two-wire interface system consisting of separate lines for the data and clock. Figure 2 shows the layout of the two-wire SMBus system.

  Figure 2: Two-wire SMBus system. The SMBus is based on a two-wire system using a standardized communications protocol. This system lends itself to standardized state-of-charge and state-of-health measurements.

The objective behind the SMBus battery is to remove the charge control from the charger and assign it to the battery. With a true SMBus system, the battery becomes the master and the charger serves as slave that must follow the dictates of the battery. 

Battery-controlled charging makes sense when considering that some packs share the same footprint but contain different chemistries, requiring alternative charge algorithms. With the SMBus, each battery receives the correct charge levels and terminates full-charge with proper detection methods. Future battery chemistries will be able to use the existing chargers.

An SMBus battery contains permanent and temporary data. The permanent data is programmed into the battery at the time of manufacturing and includes battery ID number, battery type, serial number, manufacturer's name and date of manufacture. The temporary data is acquired during use and consists of cycle count, user pattern and maintenance requirements. Some of this information is renewed during the life of the battery.

The SMBus is divided into Level 1, 2 and 3. Level 1 has been eliminated because it does not provide chemistry independent charging. Level 2 is designed for in-circuit charging. A laptop that charges its battery within the unit is a typical example of Level 2. Another Level 2 application is a battery that contains the charging circuit within the pack. Level 3 is reserved for full-featured external chargers.

External Level 3 chargers are complex and expensive. Some lower cost chargers have emerged that accommodate SMBus batteries but are not fully SBS compliant. Manufacturers of SMBus batteries do not fully endorse this shortcut. Safety is always a concern, but customers buy them because of low cost. Serious industrial battery users operating biomedical instruments, data collection devices and survey equipment use Level 3 chargers with full-fledged charge protocol. 

Among the most popular SMBus batteries are the 35 and 202 form-factors (Figure 3). Manufactured by Sony, Hitachi, GP Batteries, Moli Energy and others, these batteries work (should work) in all portable equipment designed for this system. Although the 35 has a smaller footprint than the 202, most chargers accommodate both sizes. A non-SMBus ('dumb') version with same footprint is also available. These batteries can only be charged with a regular charger, or one that accepts both types.

  Figure 3: 35 and 202 series 'smart' batteries featuring SMBus. Available in nickel-cadmium, nickel-metal-hydride and lithium-ion chemistries, these batteries are used for laptops, biomedical instruments and survey equipment. A non-SMBus ('dumb') version with same footprint is also available.

In spite of the agreed standard and given form factors, many computer manufacturers have retained their proprietary batteries. Safety, performance and form factor are the reasons. They argue that enduring performance can only be guaranteed if their own brand battery is used. This makes common sense but the leading motive may be pricing. In the absence of competition, these batteries can be sold for a premium price.

Negatives of the 'smart' battery

The 'smart' battery has some notable downsides, one of which is price. An SMBus battery costs about 25% more than the 'dumb' equivalent. In addition, the 'smart' battery was intended to simplify the charger but a full-fledged Level 3 charger costs substantially more than a regular model.

A more serious drawback is the requirements for periodic calibration or capacity re-learning. The Engineering Manager of Moli Energy, a manufacturer of lithium-ion cell commented, "With lithium-ion we have eliminated the memory effect; but is the SMBus battery introducing digital memory?"

Why is calibration needed? The calibration corrects the tracking errors that occur between the battery and the digital sensing circuit while charging and discharging. The most ideal battery application, as far as fuel-gauge accuracy is concerned, would be a full charge followed by a full discharge at a constant current. In such a case, the tracking error would be less than 1% per cycle. In real life, however, a battery may be discharged for only a few minutes and the load pulses may be very short. Long storage also contributes to errors because the circuit cannot accurately compensate for self-discharge. Eventually, the true capacity of the battery no longer synchronizes with the fuel gauge and a full charge and discharge is needed to 're-learn' the battery.

How often is calibration needed? The answer lies in the battery application. For practical purposes, a calibration is recommended once every three months or after every 40 short cycles. Many batteries undergo periodic full discharges as part of regular use. If the portable device allows a deep enough discharge to reset the battery and this is done regularly, no additional calibration is needed. However, if no discharge reset has occurred for a few months, a deliberate full discharge is needed. This can be done on a charger with discharge function or a battery analyzer.

What happens if the battery is not calibrated regularly? Can such a battery be used in confidence? Most 'smart' battery chargers obey the dictates of the chemical cells rather than the electronic circuit. In this case, the battery will fully charge regardless of the fuel gauge setting and function normally, but the digital readout will become inaccurate. If not corrected, the fuel gauge simply becomes a nuisance.

An addition problem with the SMBus battery is non-compliance. Unlike other tightly regulated standards, the SMBus protocol allows some variations. This may cause problems with existing chargers and the SMBus battery should be checked for compatibility before use. The need to test and approve the marriage between a specific battery and charger is unfortunate, given the assurance that the SMBus battery is intended to be universal. Ironically, the more features offered on the SMBus charger and the battery, the higher the likelihood of incompatibilities.

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