The latest innovations in solar-powered mobile devices
It’s perhaps the greatest mobility conundrum: consumers want mobile innovation — more speed, more power, better cameras, better security, richer apps, VR, AR and any other cool features that device manufacturers and app developers can dream up. They also want to charge their devices less often, or preferably not at all. Yet while each new smartphone boasts a longer battery life than its previous iteration, the difference is often barely noticeable, because the more powerful phone puts a greater strain on the more powerful battery.
Solar-powered mobile devices could be the solution, but, as Tech Radar reports, other than a few prototypes and limited-run devices, the closest thing to a solar smartphone has been a solar smartphone charger.
So what’s the holdup? What solar technology is currently on the mobile market, and what’s coming soon?
Solar power: Easy to access, hard to harness for mobile
The sun is the most abundant energy resource known to man, continuously providing about 173,000 terawatts of solar energy, according to the US Department of Energy. This amounts to more than 10,000 times the world’s total energy consumption.
Harnessing that energy requires a solar cell, in which sunlight excites electrons. Bell Laboratories built the first solar cell in 1954. By the 1970s, they were already powering mobile devices — pocket calculators. Today, solar energy powers millions of homes and businesses.
Why not smartphones? Smartphones require a lot of energy and have relatively small surface area for solar panels, and most people don’t leave their phones in sunlight for long periods of time.
Overcoming these challenges has been slow work, but there has been progress.
New solar-powered mobile devices: From chargers to smartwatches
Solar cell phone chargers have been on the market for years and come in all shapes and sizes — from fold-up panels and rotating devices to waterproof canvases and backpack chargers. Solar-powered charging stations have even been installed in parks and other public places.
The market for these products is expected to grow at a moderate CAGR over the next eight years, according to Industry Today. But so far, the low efficiency and relatively high cost of the devices has made for slow adoption. Simply put: While they’re useful for campers, bikers and anyone living off the grid, they haven’t been practical for widespread daily use.
Given the current technology, most smartphones don’t get enough sunlight to sustain a lasting solar charge, but smartwatches might. For example, according to Pocket-Lint, Casio just unveiled a hybrid fitness watch with GPS tracking, a feature that is notorious for draining battery life. The company claims the watch lasts 33 hours after a single charge, but it also has a solar panel built into the face. For every four hours of direct sunlight, wearers get another hour of GPS navigation.
Another company, LunaR, has developed a hybrid smartwatch that it claims can get a charge from direct sunshine and indoor light, and the device only needs an hour of exposure per day to run, according to The Verge. The company launched the product on Kickstarter and is estimated to start filling preorders in May of 2018.
What’s next in solar mobile innovation?
As researchers continue to make breakthroughs in solar cell and panel development, mobile technology companies are already at the forefront of innovation. For example, PC Magazine recognized California-based Kumbaya as one of the 11 most innovative startups at Mobile World Congress (MWC) this year. The solar company has built an all-in-one hub for off-the-grid homes that powers 2G and 3G, WiFi, Bluetooth and satellite access, while also powering homes.
Meanwhile, other innovators are looking for ways to design that elusive solar smartphone, starting with solar panel screens.
The South China Morning Post reported that the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia showcased the world’s most efficient solar panel at MWC this year. These panels are built using inorganic cells called perovskite that include graphene ink, a thin and light yet strong substance that is transparent and a great conductor of electricity. Researchers say more work needs to be done before these panels can be integrated into phones, but graphene does make solar cells more efficient, stabler and cheaper to produce — all of which bode well for solar-powered mobile devices.
These are just some of the solar energy possibilities that scientists, engineers and mobile technology companies are currently pursuing. How the first solar-powered smartphone will work remains to be seen, but given the current rate of mobile innovation, it shouldn’t be too much longer before the world finds out.