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MWC 2015

Solar panels built into smartphone screen to solve the battery-life crisis

A prototype shown at Mobile World Congress 2015 incorporated solar-power technology into a smartphone's touchscreen to make it accessible even after the battery has died.

battery crisis primary

At Mobile World Congress 2015 in Barcelona this week, Kyocera is showing a prototype that turns one of the modern smartphone's biggest battery life liabilities into an asset – a smartphone that incorporates solar power technology into the touchscreen.

According to a Smithsonian Magazine report, Kyocera developed the technology in partnership with SunPartner Technologies and installed it on its Torque smartphone prototype, which was designed for rugged outdoor use.

At less than 0.5 millimeters in thickness and as much as 90% transparency, the screen technology could fit any of today's popular smartphones without inhibiting their users, SunPartner Technologies said in a press release. The component that captures sunlight – called Wysips Crystal – can be installed just below the touchscreen panel of the smartphone, so it doesn't affect the user experience, and feeds the solar energy into the battery.

While the technology may not be strong enough to replace the plug-and-charge smartphone battery, it does mean users could access apps and information on their phones at least for a brief period after the battery has completely died. This could prove critical for emergency situations, though it may be limited to those that occur during the day time.

SunPartner marketing director Matthieu de Broca told Smithsonian that the Wysips Crystal technology can currently generate up to 2.5 milliwatts of power per square centimeter in "typical sunlight conditions," and added that the company aims to reach 4 milliwatts by the end of this year.

At its current capacity, de Broca said 10 minutes of exposure to sunlight could generate 100 minutes of standby use and about two minutes of talk time to a smartphone's battery, according to the report.

This isn't the first attempt to solve the cellphone battery issue with solar power. As the Smithsonian report pointed out, Samsung even tried with a project called Blue Earth in 2009. But the SunPartner technology is the first to look to the touchscreen, allowing for the device to be used while it generates power.

Kyocera's Torque smartphone is a prototype that isn't likely to make it to market, according to the report. But SunPartner is still developing the technology for smartphone and tablet cases and covers, which could reach the market soon.

Battery life seems to be the one deficiency that is holding mobile technology back. I've said in the past that it will stand in the way of widespread adoption of mobile payments – people are used to their wallets, and they won't leave the house without them until they can be sure that their phone won't die and leave them stranded without access to money.

What this project does signify, however, is increasing interest in approaches to solve the battery life problem through the environment around the smartphone, in lieu of technology that improves the actual batteries that go into the phone. As was shown at CES, wireless smartphone charging stations could soon start showing up in cars and at every public business where a user might need a charge. Solar would make it available everywhere else.

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