Students, Alumni ‘Charging’ Forward With New Phone Battery Device

A black smartphone connected to a charger and the Canal Battery Guard. Lots of people leave their phones charging overnight—after all, why not wake up to a busy day with your phone at 100%?

But doing so habitually can make the phone’s battery weaker over time. That degradation is what a group of University of Pittsburgh innovators hope to solve with their product, Canal Battery Guard.

“Everybody experiences this problem: You get a new phone and the battery lasts for a whole day, but after a year or two, they don’t last as long,” said Nicolas Kshatri, a fifth-year bioengineering senior in Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering and a co-founder of Canal.

The battery guard acts like a mediator between the phone and charger. Smaller than a half-dollar coin, the guard plugs into a phone’s charging port on one side and has its own port on the other for the charging cord. Users then pair the device with Canal’s app to detect the changes.

From there, the guard detects changes in temperature and uses a charging algorithm that gives the phone battery rest periods to minimize overheating, the main factor in battery degradation.

“A few companies have come up with devices that perform similarly, but all they do is sense when phones are done charging and then cuts off the charge,” Kshatri said. “Our device provides rest periods.”

Kshatri, along with recent engineering alumni Mohamed Morsy (ENGR ’20) and Matthew Rosenblatt (ENGR ’20) have been working on the battery guard for the past three and a half years, dating back to when they were first-year students. The idea came from Morsy presenting the idea in a course taught in the Swanson School, “The Art of Making: An Introduction to Hands-On System Design and Engineering.”

Three people standing together in dress shirts and sweaters against a building“At the time, I didn't really know much about the problem we would end up solving, but I thought there might be a way to extend the lifespan of a smartphone battery by changing the way they charge,” Morsy said. “I didn't think much about it again until I took the class, where I got the opportunity to present my half-baked idea and form a team around it.”

The course was taught by Joseph Samosky, assistant professor of bioengineering. For first-year students like the Canal team, the class is offered as an honors course in innovation, design thinking and user-centric design. Students are challenged to explore unmet needs and develop project topics of their own choosing, then apply the experiment-based design thinking process to create and prototype innovative solutions.

“We want our students to be empowered to see problems from their users’ point of view and then develop solutions that are both creative and effective in meeting people’s needs,” said Samosky, who continues to teach the class. “I admire the Canal team’s agency and dedication and look forward to seeing the results of their ongoing testing and R&D. We’re incredibly proud of the team’s ability, especially this year, to successfully navigate building a startup to develop this product.”

After completing the course and deciding to work together more, the team did more research into the causes of battery degradation and has worked with Pitt’s Innovation Institute for commercial development. The battery guard was entered into competitions such as the Randall Family Big Idea Competition, where it won third prize in 2020. The team also entered the guard into Pitt’s Blast Furnace.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had “minimal impact” on the guard’s development, Kshatri said.

“Maybe in the beginning, we could’ve worked together in the same place, but we’ve been just as productive working remotely,” he said.

The team is seeking more funding as Canal moves forward to put the battery guard on the market, as well as further testing.