Gadgets harvest renewable energy

Companies are displaying prototypes and selling devices that capture renewable energy to recharge mobile devices

Experiments are under way to harvest free energy through motion and the environment, which could lead to devices such as mobile phones that can be recharged without electricity. One Laptop Per Child has experimented with charging XO laptops through solar power, foot pedal and pull-string. Nokia last week released a kit that draws energy from cycling to recharge phones.

Orange said it would demonstrate boots that recharge mobile phones through energy derived while walking. While Orange's contraption is experimental, Tremont Electric is already selling a device that captures energy from running or walking to recharge mobile devices.

Gumboots that charge mobile phones

Orange this week announced rain boots that can generate energy through walking to recharge mobile devices such as cell phones and MP3 players. Called "Orange Power Wellies," the boots use modified soles that generate energy with each step, which is then channeled to recharge mobile devices.

A sole includes thermoelectric modules sandwiched between two thin ceramic wafers. Stepping creates heat on the top ceramic wafer and coolness from the ground is applied to the lower wafer, which generates electricity. The hotter a foot gets, the more energy it produces. Around 12 hours of walking charges a mobile phone for one hour of use.

Orange announced the electric boots in time for the Glastonbury Festival in the U.K., where they will be on display between June 23 and 27. The festival is a vehicle for Orange to announce renewable energy prototypes -- last year the company pitched the Glastonbury Solar Concept Tent, which included photovoltaic threads for solar energy to recharge devices.

The Wellies were developed with GotWind, a company that experiments with renewable technology resources. Orange and GotWind two years ago at Glastonbury demonstrated a "Dance Charger," a small generator mounted in an armband that created kinetic energy through dancing.

Kinetic energy goes commercial

Speaking of kinetic energy, Tremont Electric is selling a portable device that can recharge smartphones through everyday activities like running or walking. The NPower PEG (personal energy generator) is small enough to be carried or placed in a backpack, according to company executives. It includes a recyclable lithium-polymer battery that stores energy and attaches to portable devices through a USB port. Tremont sells the charger for US$149.99. It works with Apple's iPhone, Research In Motion's BlackBerry and HTC smartphones.

Five minutes of walking with the NPower PEG will produce enough power for one minute of talk time, said Jessica Davis, a spokeswoman for Tremont Electric. In general terms, walking an hour translates to 12 minutes of talk time.

The device is ideal for active outdoors people, said Aaron LeMieux, founder of Tremont Electric, who is an adventurer. For example, hikers and backpackers going on treks could use the charger to power phones, as wall outlets may be hard to find. The company is still developing the technology to reach a larger audience.

The device weighs about 9 ounces (255 grams), which is more than an iPhone 3GS smartphone, which weighs 135 grams.

Chargers in small packages

Solio sells portable solar chargers that gather energy from the sun to recharge portable devices. The devices include internal batteries that store power, which can be transferred to portable devices. If there's no sunlight, the chargers also work with power outlets.

The $79.95 Solio Classic-i charger is the most expensive of the company's offerings, but also the most worthwhile. It stores power for up to one year, takes around nine hours to charge under the sun, and provides about 10 hours of talk time on a mobile device. The cheapest solar charger is the $49.95 Mono-i, which takes 17 hours to fully charge and provides six-and-a-half hours of talk time.

Eton's solar-charged products

Eton last month introduced Scorpion, a gadget designed for hikers who may not have access to power outlets. The device can be powered by multiple natural energy resources including a hand crank and solar cells. The device includes a USB port to recharge mobile devices including cell phones. It includes a flashlight and a radio to get updates on weather conditions through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather band. It also has a digital radio tuner, a flashlight, and for good effect, a bottle opener. The device is priced at $50.

The company earlier this month also shipped the Soulra, a solar-powered sound system for the iPod and iPhone. The system features a ruggedized rubber exterior with a solar panel that can be pulled out from the middle. An iPod or iPhone can be placed on the device for playback. The device comes with a lithium-ion battery pack and can be plugged into power outlets. The device is priced at $199.

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