Gadgets get power from sun and water

A few companies at last week’s CES 2008’s Sustainable Technologies TechZone introduced new products that use fewer nonrenewable resources, just as the Consumer Electronics Association announced that it would go green by purchasing 20,000 tons’ worth of carbon offsets.

They’re still a little pricey for the average consumer, but they show that both sunlight and water are viable power sources for laptops, iPods, cell phones, and other gadgets.

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 4 pounds with the battery, so it’s not uber-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 labor-intensive to use for most people.

For a little fun in the sun, Freeplay Energy’s NR-2XS solar-powered radio should arrive in the United States in May for about $100. It has a line-in for playing the tunes from your music player, USB for charging up small devices, and a headphone port. It also plugs into an electrical outlet, should the sun fail you. The radio comes in white, black, red, and blue.

The HydroPak is the first water-powered, fuel-cell, hydrogen-generating charger that I’ve ever seen. Horizon Fuel Cell Technology, 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 United States 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.