Mo­bile so­lar cells

Gary Mar­shall goes pan­ning in the river of ru­mour for nuggets of knowl­edge

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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.

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