Coming soon: solar panels for notebook PCs

Want to power up your laptop or cell phone without plugging into a coal-fired or nuclear power plant?

At the Consumer Electronics Show’s Sustainable Technologies TechZone, several companies unveiled products that use sunlight and water as power sources for hardware, though they’re a little pricey.

A lot of solar chargers work with small devices, but laptops generally have been left in the dark–until now. Voltaic Systems’ Generator briefcase, scheduled for release this spring at a not-so-cheap US$599, lets you plug your laptop into a rechargeable battery inside the case. A solar panel that covers one of the briefcase’s sides provides the power. The battery inside is smart enough to know whether your laptop needs 12 or 20 volts, and Voltaic Systems bundles in a bunch of universal plugs that should fit many brands of products. The bag weighs four pounds with the battery, so it’s not overly-light for a fabric bag. The fabric, by the way, is water-resistant and made of recycled PET plastic.

You need direct sunlight to get the best charge, though, and one laptop takes a day to charge. The company recommends that you charge a small amount at frequent intervals rather than letting your laptop drain and then trying to charge it up all at once. That might be hard to remember to do. As a result, the Generator–while it looks really neat–is still too expensive, heavy, and labour-intensive to use for most people.

The HydroPak is the first water-powered, fuel-cell, hydrogen-generating charger that I’ve ever seen. Horizon Fuel Cell Technology Pte. Ltd., of Singapore, which makes the fuel cell, and Millennium Cell, which makes the hydrogen generator, have teamed up to create a line of products that can charge a laptop or a smaller gadget such as a phone or iPod. It’s scheduled for release in the third quarter of 2008.

The product comes in two sizes. The 600-milliliter version generates 270 watt-hours of power, has two USB ports, and can recharge items as big as laptops and power-tool batteries. It costs $400 for the fuel-cell unit and $20 for each hydrogen cartridge. The 20-milliliter size, which a spokesperson said can charge an iPod in 45 minutes, generates 15 watt-hours of power. It will cost about $50, for the initial fuel cell and cartridge.