Mobile solar cells
Gary Marshall goes panning in the river of rumour for nuggets of knowledge
Whether it’s a Watch, an iPhone or a MacBook, your Apple kit has an Achilles heel: the battery. It’s most pronounced on the Apple Watch, which can’t have a big battery for fear of giving wearers a bad case of Gorilla Arm, but every mobile device has to deal with the issue of power versus portability, and the issue becomes more important the smaller our devices become. Fancy an Internet of Things That Need To Be Recharged All The Time? Nor do we.
The good news is that Apple is working on it. It’s been amassing more than a dozen patents relating to solar power, and some of them are really interesting. Take the 2014 patent filing 20150199062, which shows a trackpad whose bezel contains solar cells, or the same year’s patent 8730179, which describes “Integrated touch sensor and solar panel stack-up configurations that may be used on portable devices”. Those devices include not just the glass-covered displays we’re used to, but flexible plastic displays too. The solar cells could be integrated into a device’s casing, or located behind its screen, or in the trackpad, or in the body of the Magic Mouse.
Solar power is nothing new, of course, but it’s famously inefficient: you need fairly large panels to generate useful amounts of power, which is why it isn’t in your iPhone just yet. But it’s coming: in late 2014 it emerged that Kyocera was testing Sunpartner Technologies’ Wysips solar displays, which add a photovoltaic layer to smartphone touchscreens. It’s one of several competing designs that enables touchscreens to generate electricity as well as consume it.
The technology doesn’t currently generate enough power to drive an iPhone at full tilt, but it does promise “infinite standby” and the ability to use important features such as emergency calls or Apple Pay when the phone’s battery is depleted. More efficient solar cells and processors should build on that foundation. Production is still a few years away, however, with the most optimistic estimates suggesting 2016 to 2018. It’ll probably be even longer before such technology appears in any iOS device: for example, while many Android firms have embraced wireless charging, the iPhone is sorely lacking, only capable of it through a thirdparty wireless charging case such as the AirCharge
Apple’s solar cell patents don’t just include the glass-covered displays we’re used to. They include flexible plastic displays too.