The latest innovations in solar energy, such as the introduction of thin film panels, have made it a much more versatile technology that opens up a whole world of applications. Applying solar panels to mobile devices would have the obvious benefit of removing (or lowering) the need for wall chargers, but the technology is not quite there yet. The products currently available on the market are quite expensive and only provide limited extra battery power, but the technology is advancing fast and we surely will see more of it in the future.
Mobile Phones and Chargers
The main focus of innovation regarding mobile, solar-powered devices is the smartphone industry. Two areas are being developed currently: external solar chargers that can be either plugged in like traditional ones or integrated in a case, or phones that contain thin film PV on their back or screen. Solar chargers have been around for a few years, but haven’t taken off due to high prices and low efficiency. The obvious disadvantage of chargers is that they need to be directly exposed to the sun - glass, for instance, might reduce their efficiency - and you don’t really want to leave your device on the grass for hours. The same goes for phones that incorporate the solar cells on their back, since that area will generally be shaded by your hands while you are using the phone. These issues, combined with the high prices, make solar-powered phones and chargers not so attractive to users, but many companies are working to introduce new options on the market.
Upcoming solar powered devices should come cheaper and with new ways to catch light. A French company named Wysips is developing the first transparent, thin film solar panel in order to integrate it into phones’ screens. That way, the phone would be able to be “trickle-charged” while being used, and the transparency of the solar panel would not dim the screen. Obviously, an opaque panel would be much more efficient, but the screen would be unreadable. Another interesting feature of these panels is that they would work with both natural and artificial light. That would be especially useful for e-readers, which would be automatically charged by ambient light while you use them. The company stated that they found a way to incorporate this technology at an incredibly low cost: just one dollar.
What Drives the Market?
The prospect of cheaper devices is definitely appealing, but most people still believe using the good old plug is a much easier option. So who is the real target of products like these? Similarly to residential solar panel systems, the people who benefit the most from solar powered mobile devices are those who have no access to electricity. African countries count the lowest numbers of people with electricity, and yet millions of people still use cell phones. Emerging markets are the big drivers of change in the industry, and are pushing for cheaper devices with higher efficiency. This tendency might eventually influence the whole market and deliver cheap, green-energy phones to the whole world.