The End of the Power Cord: Solar and Typing-Powered Laptops

A new solar laptop could free computers from their power cords. And in the future, the pressure created by typing could be used to charge batteries.

In certain coffee shops in neighborhoods like the East Village, where the self-employed camp out for hours, seats near power outlets command a premium. They are the first to go, and those laptop users not lucky enough to snag one sneak furtive glances at the plugged-in.

But a couple of technologies are going to free laptops (and their users) from the tyrannical reign of the power cord. Not only will laptop jockeys be able to work wherever they want without lunging for the power outlet, but by generating their own power, laptops will save their users from sucking that much more electricity from the grid.

First, laptops will go solar. This is happening now. Solar chargers for laptops and solar panel–adorned laptop bags have been around for a few years. They run anywhere from $200 to more than $1,200.

But with that amount of cash, you could buy a new laptop, and starting next month that laptop could have solar power built in. The new Samsung NC215S has solar cells embedded in its lid, and the company recently decided to offer it in U.S. markets. For every two hours the computer basks in the sun, it stores one hour of battery life. The battery holds 14 hours of power altogether, so the computer can run well into the night, without needing a charge. The company has also made the screen brighter and more matte than traditional computer screens, so it’s easy to use outside. And it costs $399, not much more than some of the fancier solar chargers out there. Coffee shop denizens could be fighting for seats by the window, instead of by the wall.

Further in the future, but more convenient for those of us who aren’t organized enough to make sure to leave our laptops in the sun every day, just using a computer could be enough to charge it. The technology that could make this possible is piezoelectrics. Piezoelectric materials channel pressure and turn it into electricity. I’m creating pressure right now, every time I push down on one of my laptop’s keys. If there were a piezoelectric film laid below them, every time I typed, I’d be creating electricity that could help power my laptop. And this idea could be applied to any device that you press on—cell phones, for instance.

Researchers in Australia measured for the first time the amount of electricity that thin film coatings of piezoelectric materials could channel. Right now, it’s not nearly enough to power a computer, and the next step will be figuring out how to improve the technology’s output. In theory, though, this technology could herald a self-charging computer that you never had to worry about plugging in or setting in the sun, as long as you were using it regularly.

Photo from Flickr user Mohamed Saeed

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