Tech Talk: Is Solar Cell Charging The Next Leap In Mobile?

November 14, 2017 - Written By Daniel Golightly

New advances in mobile charging solutions brought forward by researchers at Dracula Technologies and geared toward convenience could also begin to address energy consumption and environmental issues.That’s because the company has found a way to create solar cells that can not only absorb energy from light both indoors and out but can also be printed using an inkjet printer. The company has specifically aimed the technology – which it calls Light As Your Energetic Response (LAYER) – at overcoming the energy constraints that prevent mobile connected technologies from being used to their full potential. It’s no secret that smartphones and other similarly connected devices have become a mainstay in daily life for billions of people around the world. Some analytics firms have put forward that as many as 5 billion individual smartphone users will exist in 2019. However, smartphones are often held back by the fact that larger productivity applications and software, as well as the hardware itself, tend to be energy intensive. That’s the leading problem Dracula Technologies is hoping to solve, with the company estimating that more than 50 billion connected devices in total will be in use by 2020.

For starters, among the leading problems with mobile devices is that they require frequent charging. Meanwhile, improvements have been made in both battery technologies and software optimizations, but those have been relatively slow to keep up with the advancements made in performance and functionality – which have led to devices requiring ever more power to operate, despite efficiency improvements. That has, in turn, led to a number of innovative ideas for keeping those smartphones, tablets, and more charged up, ranging from portable battery packs and wireless charging to hand cranks intended for emergency use. In terms of convenience, each of the current solutions effectively meets the challenges associated with powering mobile, connected devices with varying degrees of success. Although it can still be inconvenient having to charge up both a portable battery pack and a smartphone or tablet once the battery pack finally runs out of juice, users are able to get multiple days of use without plugging into a wall outlet.

With that said, the fact also remains that the energy being used for mobile and connected devices most often come from non-renewable or grid-linked sources. As mentioned above, smartphone and connected device users are on the rise and convenience isn’t the only issue likely to arise from increased use of smartphones. It’s important to point out that even when the number of smartphone users hits 5 billion, it isn’t likely that the vast majority of energy consumption is attributable to the technologies that could be served by Dracula’s solar cells. However, the average use of energy per capita in the U.S. in 2015, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, stood at around 303 million BTUs per year – or just short of 89,000-kilowatt hours. So it isn’t unfeasible that increased use of those devices will lead to an incremental individual increase in energy consumption that is actually substantial when considered as a whole. Taken together, exponential growth in the use of smartphones, tablets, and other connected devices is going to consume a massive amount of energy. The real problem may not even be environmental, so much as it may become a real challenge to create and manage the amount of power needed for current devices and the Internet of Things.

LAYER addresses each of these issues with a single product, primarily because it isn’t a single product at all. Instead, it is a flexible, printable technology that can be adjusted to suit whatever product a partner company or client wants. The use-case scenarios Dracula Technologies has created include LAYER’s use in a parasol, a backpack, athletic training equipment, and a table meant to be used with outdoor lounge chairs. The technology also goes beyond use cases on offer from its competitors in the solar charging category. That’s because Dracula Technologies claims that LAYER’s solar cells can draw energy from artificial light, in addition to their more traditional use to capture light from the sun. For example, the company’s backpack concept could, of course, be used to capture and store energy while its wearer is out of the home. But the backpack could also continue to recollect energy that would ordinarily be wasted from the manmade lights in a coffee shop or restaurant. The incorporated plugs can then be used to charge up whatever device the user needs to be charged. Despite the fact that Dracula Technologies has not provided details about how well indoor charging works versus solar charging, that does open up distinctive possibilities for LAYER far beyond what current solar charging offers.

Because the technology is adaptable, is made from organic compounds, and can essentially draw in power as long as there’s a light source to pull from, LAYER could revolutionize the way smartphones and other connected devices are used. Moreover, it could be applied to any situation where availability of energy is holding technologies back from reaching their full potential, allowing users to worry less about how much battery life they have left to work with. It could also take a lot of devices off of the main power grid entirely, resolving some concern about environmental impacts of rapid technological advances. Bearing that in mind, there’s no guarantee that LAYER will even really take off but, if it does, it could provide a jumping off point for substantial improvements to the entire industry.