Casing for smartphones covered by a photovoltaic layer developed by SunPartner Technologies

Fuel cells and solar panels to free gadgets from the grid

Displays covered with transparent solar panels or portable fuel cell chargers will allow smartphone users to cut themselves away from the grid in the near future.

As modern smartphones become both increasingly indispensable and increasingly power hungry, draining their batteries in a day instead of what used to be a week some ten years ago, companies have realised that alternative energy sources could make up for the sluggish development of battery technology.

At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, several market-ready technologies have been put on display as well as many others that may not be just there yet.

“The battery is the major issue for most of the wearable and mobile devices,” said Matthieu de Broca, business developer at SunPartner Technologies, a French company developing ultra-thin invisible photovoltaic solar cells that could be directly embedded into the display of a gadget to harvest energy from the sun.

“People are looking to get the best battery life as possible with the lightest solution so it’s a major trend to do energy harvesting in any way.”

SunPartner’s solar technology currently has clear limitations. Capable of providing enough power for 100 minutes of standby or a two-minute phone call after ten minutes of direct sun exposure, the product is positioned towards the outdoor loving clientele in need of backup emergency charging.

The solar cells, generating about 2.5 miliwatt could be integrated into the phones' displays as well as into protective and decorative casing. The company is already testing a ruggedized smartphone in cooperation with Kyocera and is in negotiations with TCL Alcatel.

“Currently, our technology is clearly a complimentary source of energy that can help in emergency situations,” de Broca explained. “But we hope that eventually, new materials will be developed that would allow us to increase the efficiency of our solar cells.”

Unlike solar energy, hydrogen fuel cells seem to be already prepared to help out busy smartphone users on the go.

At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, Swedish company myFC, a spin-off from Sweden’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology, has launched what they say is the world’s smallest portable fuel cell charger.

Called JAQ, the iPhone-sized device uses disposable cartridges filled with water and salt worth approximately 1.5 smartphone charge.

“This is already our second product,” said My Ernevi, myFC’s marketing executive, at the company’s small but extremely busy stand in the Fira Gran Via congress centre. “The first one was a bit more hassle to use as you had to put the water and the salt in by yourself. It was positioned more towards the outdoor market and more towards men than women. But this one is for everyone,” she said, adding that the disposable cartridges are completely recyclable and don’t leave behind any harmful waste.

“We haven’t made the final decision about the price yet but it will be somewhere between $1.5 to $1.8. for the cartridge and no more than $99 for the charger.”

British fuel cell pioneer Intelligent Energy is already selling its premium fuel cell charger called the Upp with Apple products and is envisioning the future when tiny fuel cells will be embedded directly into the devices, eliminating the grid-dependence altogether.

“The technology is ground-breaking already but the roadmap is to actually embed the technology inside the device,” said Julian A Hughes, Intelligent Energy’s business development director.

“We believe that within a five-year period we will be able to that. For some devices it may take longer than for others but eventually we would like to see the devices powered completely with embedded fuel cells. “

Intelligent Energy’s Upp provides a week’s worth of charge if used constantly after which its fuel tank would need refuelling with hydrogen. The charger sells for £149 with every refuelling costing additional £5.95. The device is currently only available in the UK.

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