Green

Apple gets greener with solar device patent

Apple has been getting greener every week, it seems. First we reported on Greenpeace’s finding that Apple was moving up the ranks of the cleanest tech companies. Next, it was Apple’s home energy management device.

Now the innovation du jour is Apple’s patent on incorporating transparent solar panels into a portable media device, a.k.a. iPod. As solar panels are becoming the new eco-bling, this can only boost Apple’s credibility as a progressive and ‘green’ company. But will the user experience actually change?

The iPod Classic already has a lithium ion battery with 36 hours of audio playback or 6 hours of video. With the iPod Touch, you get 30 hours audio 6 hours video.For either device, the battery life is pretty long. Personally, I think of it in terms of watching three movies in a row and then taking a short nap before landing on a cross country flight. I might even have power to spare for the cab ride home.

So when is the solar powered iPod going to shine? In the car? Well, maybe — but probably not. There is already a thriving industry around charging, connecting, protecting and bling-ifying the iPod. Connecting it to your car stereo normally means charging it simultaneously. I suppose if one were to drive cross country in a vehicle with no stereo, leaving the device solar side up on the dashboard with your earbuds in would be nice. This may prove to be a small niche market, though.

I suppose anything that makes use of solar energy is positive. Currently the U.S. is on a 50 percent coal power mix. However small the amount, charging an iPod with coal fired electricity just doesn’t seem right. It still seems unlikely that enough iPods will be left sunny side up on the window sill (instead of plugged in) to make any meaningful difference.

The one use where I really dig the idea (and this is a patented idea, not a developed product yet) is potentially in going backpacking with some tunes. More and more young folks are going for long walks in the National Parks and Forests every year and bringing their cellular / media devices with them. While 36 hours of audio playback would suffice for many, music all day long and a movie before bed would leave a user out of juice on a long weekend. For those that just can’t hike without Wagnerian opera to make the mountains a little more dramatic, a solar charged iPod might be just the ticket.

So much for the iPod. What else might this patent cover?

The patent mentions laptops, tablets, internet devices and just about any other consumer electronic that Apple is likely to make. Still, Apple isn’t doing anything that will fundamentally change how you use your devices. A solar charging laptop or tablet sounds nice for working at the cafe or for road tripping (if you can’t get AC power set up in your car) though personally, I wouldn’t pay much for the privilege.

If the solar panel was able to charge the battery at the same rate it was drained, that would be a game changer. Unfortunately, it will never happen. Here is why:

A square meter of sunlight on earth provides 700 watts of energy. My 15.4″ laptop uses about 65 watts to run in high performance mode and has a surface area of just under 0.1 square meters. With efficiency peaking around 40 percent for solar panels there is no way to achieve that perpetual charging. Apple could, however, increase battery life.

Apple’s big trick might be in perception and marketing of this transparent solar integration — consumers will feel like they are saving the planet, even if they plug it in most of the time anyway.

A study by Retrevo.com suggests that the #1 desire for potential tablet customers is long battery life while 39 percent of potential customers strongly desired solar charging. Users who frequent sunny cafes may do well to consider an Apple tablet with solar charging, if and when such a product reaches market. For those who work indoors, the solar charging would remain a “bling” feature.

You can read more tech details here. Got other ideas about this patent? I’d love to hear them in the comments below.

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  1. [...] the consumer side, Apple has been granted a patent for incorporating solar panels on devices like the iPod and other small consumer [...]