Solar Flair
Whether we’re talking humans or methanol, the original source of most energy on Earth is the sun. Why not cut out the middleman? That’s the idea behind portable solar energy generators that use photovoltaic panels to turn sunlight into talk time, music time or game time. The beauty of these products is that they are available here and now, certified safe to take anywhere and proven to work.

There aren’t a lot yet, but one of the most interesting is the Solarkindle, a solar-powered e-reader cover introduced by SolarFocus at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) a few months ago. At $80, the case costs more than the lowest-priced Kindle. However, SolarFocus, based in Taiwan, says the photovoltaic boost of its cover will let readers indulge their passion for the printed word for three months without plugging into another power source.

Traveler’s Choice of City, based in Industry, Calif., offers a line of photovoltaic luggage that includes a solar-powered computer bag as well as an eco-traveler briefcase, each fitted with flexible photovoltaic panels that use the sides of the bag like a sunny hillside to generate power to charge a nickel-cadmium battery pack. Having the battery pack means you can use the solar bag’s electric-generating power any time under any circumstances, as long as it’s been in the light long enough recently to charge it up, says James Lin, chief operating officer at Traveler’s Choice. That’s true even in darkness. “In case your cellphone battery runs out, you can just plug it in and [it] will start to work,” Lin says.

The limited efficiency of the photovoltaic panels and limited size of the bag means that you can’t run a laptop computer off of it. That takes many more watts than a phone. However, Konarka Technologies, which makes the panels, is finding a variety of applications for its plastic-based solar films that go beyond carry-ons, says Ken McCauley, senior vice president of sales, marketing and business development for the Lowell, Mass., company. For instance, he says, solar-paneled bus stops can give mobile workers opportunities to juice up gadgets even off the grid.

For now, though, nobody’s predicting batteries will disappear in the immediate future. They are too inexpensive and available. “Batteries are the ultimate McDonald’s of technology,” Adamson says. But battery replacements and battery extenders may soon get as familiar as the bunny or the copper top or even those golden arches. “We see it becoming a part of everyday life,” McCauley says.