MacBooks catch a few rays

The panic triggered by a dying laptop when there is no outlet in sight may be a thing of the past with the implementation of a possible new solar-powered feature in Apple’s MacBooks.

Apple briefly detailed the potential features of a future MacBook in a patent approved Jan. 28 by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. One of the new features is a rear plate on the back of the MacBook with solar cells underneath that can charge the computer via an external light source.

“In the entire tech industry, one of the holy grails is everlasting power,” said Mikey Campbell, editor of AppleInsider.com, who said he thinks extended battery life is the driving motivation for the integration of a solar panel. “[People] want the most power, the most life.”

The need for longer-lasting battery power is a constant challenge for the tech industry. Solar cells have been used since the 1980s to achieve that longer battery life, according to William Ryan, director of the Master of Energy Engineering Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Handheld calculators were the first electronic devices to use solar cells.

Solar power has been developed more recently by companies such as SolarGorilla and Joos Orange in external chargers for electronics such as Apple’s Macbooks.

“The big push … is suddenly we have affordable solar cells and they could be a convenient way to extend the battery life of rechargeable equipment,” Ryan said.

Voltaic Systems is another company that uses affordable solar cells to produce and charge batteries. The cells are packaged in a solar panel, which generates electricity when pointed at the sun. The electricity is then converted into battery storage for the laptop, according to Jeff Crystal, chief operations officer at Voltaic Systems.

Apple’s newly patented panels would generate power using solar cells at a certain voltage to transfer electrical energy into chemical energy in order to charge the MacBook’s battery. The amount of solar power generated depends on the angle of the panel in relation to the sun, time of day, temperature and cloudiness, according to Crystal.

“What Apple’s doing is taking the electricity generated by the solar panels and feeding it directly into their battery,” Crystal said. “So they’re skipping our middle step, which is going into our battery.”

The amount of solar power necessary to power a MacBook would depend on the model, Campbell said.

“You have the retina display MacBook and that screen is very power-hungry,” Campbell said. “To even make a dent, I would say that you’d have to cover the entire back panel with state-of-the-art solar film.”

Some laptops cannot take a solar power charge because specific voltage and power levels must be provided, according to Crystal, but manufacturers are modifying those systems so they will be able to use solar power.

“That means it’s going to be a lot easier overall to charge those MacBooks,” Crystal said. “They’re setting it up so they can actually charge at a broader range of voltages.”

The price of such a MacBook would depend on how the solar-powered feature is implemented, according to Campbell. The laptop could cost more if the panel needs to be licensed and if the hardware and technology used to make it are more expensive.

But the benefit of mobility may make the new laptops worth the cost, according to Ryan.

“I think one of the big advantages of it would be that people are very interested in using laptops in locations where there’s no convenient place to plug them in,” Ryan said.

Apple may spark a fire in the technology market if the MacBook is produced. Other companies look to Apple and follow its trend of inventing and fine-tuning products to make them more accessible to consumers, Campbell said.

“It would give other companies something that they need to do to keep up with the competition,” Campbell said.

It is important to note that the approved patent does not guarantee Apple will mass produce these solar powered MacBooks any time soon, Campbell said.

“These kind of patents, even the crazier ones, have passed through the bureau,” Campbell said. “They might have stopped work on it already.”