Chinese mobile phone manufacturer Umeox just introduced one of its latest models, the V206, with little fanfare at the MEDPI tradeshow in Monaco. But the V206 is no ordinary phone; it’s a low-cost, ruggedized and waterproof handset powered entirely by sunlight.

The V206 is just one of a new generation of low cost, solar-powered phones that use technology from Dutch company Intivation. Intivation’s SunBoost chip makes it practical and cost-effective to charge small devices like mobile phones via the sun.

A single solar cell of the size that fits onto a phone does not produce enough voltage to charge the phone’s battery. The traditional solution is to use multiple, smaller cells in series, each of which boosts the voltage. This approach has several disadvantages, including sub-optimal performance when some of the cells are shaded, the higher cost of manufacturing multiple cells, and the fact that multiple cells have higher levels of defects that affect performance. SunBoost is a boost converter that amplifies the output voltage from the 0.3-0.6V produced by a single solar cell up to the 1.2-3.7V required to charge the battery. The SunBoost chip also has integrated Maximum Power Point tracking (MPPT), which automatically adapts to light intensity and ambient temperature to ensure that the solar cell operates at close to its maximum effectiveness in all conditions.

While the trend for mobile phones in developed countries is towards more expensive and power-hungry handsets, 1.6 billion people in the developing world don’t have access to a regular electricity supply. Not only is the electricity grid in many emerging markets unreliable, it’s also expensive, with consumers spending 15-20% of their incomes on it. If there is no local power, phone owners have to walk to the nearest town or pay inflated prices to a mobile charging vendor to charge their phone. According to Intivation, allowing customers to charge their phones from the sun boosts ARPU (revenue per customer) by 10-15% in semi-rural areas. Many African countries have more than six peak sun hours per day, making them ideal for solar-charging. Large parts of Asia and Latin America also get more than 4 peak hours per day.

The cost for the solar cell, modified battery, SunBoost chip, and related engineering is under $10 per phone. Mobile carriers don’t subsidize handsets in emerging markets, so it’s vital that the price point is low.Intivation’s Marketing Director Rik Wuts says that the “sweet spot” for a mobile phone in these markets is around $20.

Vodafone added its first solar-powered handset (which uses SunBoost) in its Spring 2010 global portfolio. The Vodafone 247, manufactured by ZTE, generates enough energy from one hour of sunlight to power 20 minutes of talk time from a 20cm2 solar cell. Intivation estimates that an average low-ARPU user should not need more than two hours of charging a day. Since these phones are targeted at particular emerging markets, they often have distinctive features adapted to that market. The ZTE S316, for example, includes an LED torch, a vital necessity in African countries with unreliable power supplies. This model is now being sold via EcoNet in Zimbabwe and MTN in Sudan, bringing the number of African countries using SunBoost-enabled phones to 13 since the first phone was introduced less than a year ago. Phones including SunBoost are now being sold in a total of 17 countries.

Intivation was established in 2003 in Amsterdam, has 20 employees and is privately funded.

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