Is Nokia Working on a Solar-Powered Phone?

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Technology in smartphones continues to improve, but at the cost of battery life. Multi-core CPUs, AMOLED screens, displays between four and five inches across, Bluetooth, NFC, Wi-Fi and worst of all, LTE are all killing any progress made in battery technology.

Not making things any easier is this trend toward inaccessible batteries (thank you, Apple). A few years ago, if need be, you could swap out a battery for one that’s fully charged. Today that’s less and less frequently an option.

SunPartner Group Solar TechnologyThis has people packing chargers with their phones, something that hasn’t been needed since the first cell phones hit the mass market in the 1990s. However, there is a unique company quietly toiling away on a light-powered solution and Nokia may be its first customer.

SunPartner Group is a French solar cell maker that is starting to make real waves in the technology circles. Its Wysips technology is a transparent photovoltaic film just 100 microns thin that sits on or under the glass of a smartphone or tablet and provides 250mW of power to charge the battery. SunPartner says the film is 90% transparent but it won’t dim the screen and should add about a dollar to the cost of the device.

And because the film absorbs light, the larger the screen, the more power it absorbs, making it scalable. SunPartner has said that a typical phone will be fully charged in six hours of light exposure, and that’s either direct sunlight or just artificial lighting in your home or office.

Without even shipping a product and just prototypes to show, SunPartner is piling up awards, including from CTIA and the Clean Tech Company 2013 Award from Nobel Sustainability.

So who will be its first customer? Rumors point to Nokia. On March 19, the company posted a picture of a Lumia and the caption “Sun, sun, sun, here we come!” A few days earlier, a French Windows Phone enthusiast site called MonWindowsPhone reported that SunPartner had signed a significant deal with an unnamed smartphone supplier. People put two and two together and Nokia became the target of a lot of rumors.

Nokia LogoNokia and Microsoft, however, both declined to comment.

Ben Bajarin, principal analyst for Creative Strategies, thinks this technology will debut in emerging markets first, rather than in the U.S. and Europe. “[Solar power] has always been pegged as more of an emerging market thing than mature markets, like India and rural China and Africa where they want to drive adoption, but may not have electricity all the time. It doesn’t surprise me Nokia is doing this because they are a strong player in emerging markets,” he said.

As much as we would like such a technology, those markets need it, he said. “As interesting as [a solar-powered phone] is because we have a battery problem, it’s not as painful a problem as it is in places [like] Africa, India or China. We’re talking villages that have one phone. That’s where they have a real pain point,” said Bajarin.

There are plenty of solar recharger accessories available now on Amazon, but no one had talked of putting a charger in the actual device. And solar is seen as the way to go where electricity is scarce. “We’ve heard that’s the one common solution every vendor has brought up about emerging markets. Solar was always the solution they thought was mass marketable,” said Bajarin.



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