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Where's my solar-powered iPhone?

Mike Elgan | Sept. 23, 2013
Everybody wants a smartphone that charges itself by converting light into power. But will that ever happen?

Researchers at several other universities and companies around the world are also chipping away at the problem of integrating solar power into smartphones.

A company called Alta Devices is working on making gallium arsenide cell thin films that could be used on smartphones. It even built a prototype for a Samsung Galaxy phone.

The Chinese telephone giant TCL Communication is reportedly working with a French solar company called Sunpartner to integrate solar panels into smartphone screens. Sunpartner's Wysips technology involves an ultra-thin transparent photovoltaic layer that sits under a touchscreen.

Despite the apparent limitations, I'm very bullish on the use of solar power for smartphones.

Why (and how) your smartphone will eventually be solar-powered

I believe it's inevitable that within a few years, we'll never have to plug in our smartphones or think about power. Here's how I think that's going to happen.

First, battery technology will keep improving slowly, and cells will charge faster and last longer than today's batteries of the same size.

Second, I believe it's only a matter of time before smartphones have solar panels covering both the front and the back, using different technologies. This will enable your phone to soak up energy no matter which side is facing up when you put it down.

Third, wireless charging technology will take over. Tables, lamps and desks will all have wireless charging capabilities, so phones will pick up juice whenever they're placed on those surfaces.

Fourth, the wearable technology revolution will reduce our use of smartphones. In fact, as a daily Google Glass user, I find that I'm using Glass to check the time, for notifications, to reply to emails and do other run-of-the-mill tasks as my phone spends more time in a deep sleep.

But the biggest gains will come from improvements in power management. Motorola's new Moto X phone — a device that I also use every day — is a marvel in power management. It achieves this by using dedicated, low-power processing (originally developed for smartwatches) to listen for voice commands and keep tabs on the phone's location and orientation. It also has an AMOLED screen and is equipped with Motorola's Active Display technology. This combination eliminates the need for users to fire up the full screen and phone for common tasks like checking the time and checking for notifications.

The Moto X is just one example of how an unglamorous aspect of smartphone design can deliver significant improvements: Ongoing advances in power management may one day yield a phone we never have to charge.

Yes, solar-powered smartphones are coming. But by the time they arrive, the technology won't be a big deal. Our phones will use multiple technologies, including solar, that will work together to eliminate the need to ever plug them into the wall.

Self-charging smartphones will be the second most convenient aspect of our lives in the years ahead — right after commuting to work via jetpack.


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