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Mon, Jan 10, 2005 - Page 12 News List

Solar power goes for a hike and for a swim

POWER-CONSCIOUS A backpack with solar panels that lets you charge your gadgets on the go might be the next big thing -- at least in the areas that see a lot of sunshine


The quest for power will corrupt us all. As we find that more and more portable electronic devices are becoming part of our daily life and wardrobe, the need to find power and ensure they're always charged grows ever more important.

But with an increasingly mobile lifestyle matching concerns about the environment, no one really wants to be tethered to a wall socket or docking station. Enter, then, the new field of solar-powered clothing. The idea is simple -- place solar panels on your jacket or bag, and your devices can charge as you go about your day.

ScotteVest, of Idaho -- already well-known among the gadget-conscious as the manufacturer of clothing with large numbers of hidden pockets specifically designed to carry electronic devices -- has released a solar panel-equipped version of its Version Three jacket.

The large microfiber waterproof comes with a removable section that slings solar panels across the wearer's shoulders and back.

Integral wires and a battery pack built into the jacket mean your devices charge inside your pockets, so you can use them at the same time.

We couldn't try out the Scotte-Vest, so we can't say if it's any good or not. But we could try out an engineering sample from another company, Voltaic Systems, and their range of solar-powered backpacks.

This is a lovely bag -- large enough to fit a Powerbook and with a pocket layout obviously designed by people who use such bags every day. Great padding and a ballistic nylon shell add to the heavy-duty feel. But it's the solar panels that make the bag stand out. They're arranged along the back, inside a panel that zips down along three edges to reveal a battery pack, a cigarette lighter-style terminal and some pockets for your devices and the set of converter plugs that comes with it. The wiring is integral to the bag, with one charge point mounted on a shoulder strap next to the mobile-phone pouch. The cable run that allows this also gives you space to thread your headphone cable -- it's very nicely thought-out.

The solar panels charge up the internal battery, which supplies the power. The bag also ships with a mains charger for the internal battery, so you can keep everything going on a dull and rainy day.

The days I tried the bag out, it was sunny and bright and there was no problem getting my phone to charge. One advantage of such a bag is that you can leave it by a window or in a sunny patch while you work.

Voltaic Systems claims that in direct sunlight the bag will recharge an average mobile phone in four to six hours. On a dull day it will take longer, and this is perhaps the biggest issue with such technologies. If it's a drizzly winter's day, you're not going to have much fun with it -- but then again, you're not going to be out and about with a backpack. In the middle of summer, this bag is perfect for a day on the beach with your MP3 player, or a short hike with a digital camera and GPS unit.

Solar power isn't new, of course, but until now it hasn't been efficient enough to produce the right amount of power on a small enough surface area. The old solar panels would use the sun to heat water, which would then drive turbines. This was inefficient and required huge areas to produce a good amount of power.

The newer technology, photovoltaic cells, uses a different effect -- when light in the form of a photon hits silicon, the silicon gives off an electron. Place the silicon in layers, and you can create an electrical charge. Over the years, photovoltaic cells have grown in power and are now a perfect size for garments. Flexibility and color are being added, although these reduce the power available. The Voltaic Systems bag's panels are not flexible, but are quite light.

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