Apple investigating solar-powered wireless mice and trackpads

Posted:
in General Discussion edited July 2015
An Apple patent application published by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on Thursday reveals continued research into alternative energy solutions, specifically as it applies to a lineup of wireless computer peripherals with embedded solar cells.


Source: USPTO


Like previous Apple inventions dealing with solar charging technology, "Wireless devices with touch sensors and solar cells" describes a device into which solar cells are disposed below transparent touch sensitive surfaces. However, instead of applying the technology to power-hungry portables like iPhone, Apple proposes integration with Bluetooth wireless keyboards, mice, multitouch track pads and other accessories.

In practice, light-based power sources are simply built into the functional top layers of a device. For example, solar cells could be embedded beneath capacitive sensor layers in Apple's Magic Mouse or Magic Trackpad, separated and stabilized by layers of liquid adhesive. During operation, the solar system gathers and converts ambient light into usable electrical energy, which is subsequently stored in a battery system or regulated capacitor. The device would then tap into harvested energy reserves to operate capacitive touch sensors, onboard processors, wireless radios and other components, potentially negating the need for batteries.




Some embodiments call for the solar cell layer to sit beneath both touch sensor and transparent protective cover layers, while others have energy producing elements sandwiched between the touch layer and protective cover. Apple notes orientation depends on material choice, as certain capacitive touch sensor designs inhibit light transmission.

In some iterations, ink or another material might be deposited above the solar cell components to obscure it from the view of a user. These substances would be opaque to visible light, but transparent in non-visible spectrums, perhaps infrared or fluorescent. While narrow, the material's transmission window allows for ambient light to pass through and hit embedded solar cells, allowing for energy conversion and storage. Apple notes visible-light-opaque layers can form brand logos or other aesthetically pleasing designs.


Alternative touch sensor/solar cell/cover glass stack-up designs.


As with any Apple patent application, it is unclear if the company actually has plans to integrate solar technology into its existing peripheral lineup. Current device designs, with multitouch capabilities and transparent casings, are ideal candidates for such alternative energy solutions, though it remains to be seen if solar conversion technology is up to the task of supplying enough energy, and at ample capacities, to facilitate long-term daily use.

Apple has been researching solar tech for years. Patent filings related to solar-assisted iPod and iPhone recharging date back to 2008, while more recent applications show advanced designs involving device display stack-ups and high-power configurations capable of powering a MacBook.

Last year, The New York Times reported Apple was eyeing solar or wireless inductive charging for its Apple Watch product, then dubbed "iWatch" by media outlets. The company ultimately opted for the latter, though future Watch versions could potentially incorporate some type of light-to-energy conversion technology, at least to help lighten the load on internal battery cells.

Apple's solar-powered computer peripheral patent application was first filed for in January 2014 and credits Matthew E. Lang as its inventor.

Comments

  • Reply 1 of 13
    bkxmnrbkxmnr Posts: 1member

    Not a lot of solar power inside an office building.  Or anywhere in my house where my Macs are located.

  • Reply 2 of 13
    MacProMacPro Posts: 19,251member
    I hope they can be powered by LED monitor light, I work in almost darkness!
  • Reply 3 of 13
    muppetrymuppetry Posts: 3,328member
    Non-visible "fluorescent" spectrum? That's a new one.
  • Reply 4 of 13
    elijahgelijahg Posts: 2,073member
    muppetry wrote: »
    Non-visible "fluorescent" spectrum? That's a new one.

    Ha yeah, any efficient internal lighting gives out as little non-visible light as possible, since anything else is a waste of energy. I don't doubt Apple's experimented with solar, but considering the terrible efficiency of solar panels it's most likely turned out to be a waste of time. Maplins in the UK sell a solar panel that's about a foot square and it's still only 3.5w. Based on the iPhone's battery life (~24h) and its battery capacity (~6w) it's a continual drain of about 0.2 watts, which seems reasonable. But considering an iPhone charges very slowly from a standard 2.5w USB socket I don't hold out much hope for an iPhone sized panel.

    Also...
    During operation, the solar system gathers and converts ambient light into usable electrical energy, which is subsequently stored in a battery system or regulated capacitor. The device would then tap into harvested energy reserves to operate capacitive touch sensors, onboard processors, wireless radios and other components, potentially negating the need for batteries.

    "Stored in a battery system or capacitor ... potentially negating the need for batteries" Right, store energy in a battery without one. In any case, what happens in the dark with no batteries? A capacitor is useless as a long term storage device, the energy to size ratio is pretty awful for a start. Do you have any idea what you're writing about AI? :no:
  • Reply 5 of 13
    MacProMacPro Posts: 19,251member
    elijahg wrote: »
    Ha yeah, any efficient internal lighting gives out as little non-visible light as possible, since anything else is a waste of energy. I don't doubt Apple's experimented with solar, but considering the terrible efficiency of solar panels it's most likely turned out to be a waste of time. Maplins in the UK sell a solar panel that's about a foot square and it's still only 3.5w. Based on the iPhone's battery life (~24h) and its battery capacity (~6w) it's a continual drain of about 0.2 watts, which seems reasonable. But considering an iPhone charges very slowly from a standard 2.5w USB socket I don't hold out much hope for an iPhone sized panel.

    Also...
    "Stored in a battery system or capacitor ... potentially negating the need for batteries" Right. What happens in the dark with no batteries? A capacitor is useless as a long term storage device, the energy to size ratio is pretty awful for a start. Do you have any idea what you're writing about AI? :no:

    I've an idea, the heat that comes of the pair of 27" Apple LCD monitors I sit in front of could probably power a steam turbine electric generator ;)
  • Reply 6 of 13
    elijahgelijahg Posts: 2,073member
    Ive an idea, the heat that comes of the pair of 27" Apple LCD monitors I sit in front of could probably power a steam turbine electric generator ;)

    Sunglasses, hat and sun lotion required? :smokey:
  • Reply 7 of 13
    shaminoshamino Posts: 465member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by bkxmnr View Post

    Not a lot of solar power inside an office building.  Or anywhere in my house where my Macs are located.

     

    It will be interesting to see how much they can pick up on.  My wristwatch (a Citizen EcoDrive model) has built-in solar charging.  The face is transparent to certain wavelengths, which charge the battery.  In this case, a watch doesn't use a lot of power, so ambient lighting can keep it powered.  A few hours outside in the sun can fully charge a drained battery in a few hours.

     

    I wonder how much power a keyboard, mouse or trackpad might use.  It may be low enough to use similar tech.  I've already seen solar powered keyboards, so there's no reason why this shouldn't work.  The real innovation will be hiding the solar cells so users don't see them (the Logitech keyboard I linked to has a very obvious (and to some, ugly) strip of solar panel across the top.

     

    A solar powered laptop would be even more awesome, and should be possible.

     

    The new Mac Book (with the USB-C port) is an ultra-low-power model.  The spec sheet claims up to 9 hours "wireless web", up to 10 hours iTunes movie playback and up to 30 days standby.  With its 39.7 watt-hour battery, this means their "wireless web" example is drawing 4.4W, iTunes movie playback is drawing 4W and standby is drawing 0.06W.  At that load, we can power it (all or in-part) by solar cells.

     

    This Mac's back cover has about 85 square inches of surface area (about 11 x 7.75") or 0.6 square feet.  According to Wikipedia, the most efficient solar panels produce about 16W per square foot.  Assuming a panel half as efficient as that (since top-end may be too expensive here), we're looking at 8W/sqft or about 4.7W over the surface are of the laptop's back cover.

     

    That's enough to power that kind of laptop without battery drain, when in direct sunlight.  Indoors, or when there isn't as much light, the battery would drain, but the solar panel should work to extend your run-time significantly.  It would also mean that closing the lid, putting it in standby mode and exposing the back cover to more direct light, would allow it to recharge without a power brick.

     

    Now, this may not be practical for larger laptops, since power powerful CPUs and GPUs will draw more power, but even if solar power was restricted to the MacBook, it would still be an incredible feature.

  • Reply 8 of 13
    am8449am8449 Posts: 349member

    Originally Posted by AppleInsider View Post



    Like previous Apple inventions dealing with solar charging technology, "Wireless devices with touch sensors and solar cells" describes a device into which solar cells are disposed below transparent touch sensitive surfaces. However, instead of applying the technology to power-hungry portables like iPhone, Apple proposes integration with Bluetooth wireless keyboards, mice, multitouch track pads and other accessories.

    Solar power seems much better suited to the Apple Watch or iPhone.

     

    I wonder if this patent is a misdirection, and the technology will find its way into portables instead, despite what's written. Doesn't the description "a device...[with] transparent touch sensitive surfaces" sound like the Watch or iPhone?

  • Reply 9 of 13
    How about a solar powered Apple Watch charger that you simply place the watch onto to charge it? I have been using a solar powered Logitech keyboard for the past couple of years and love it. It gets all its power from the LED lights in my office. It is not about saving power. It is about saving the frustration of having your batteries die while you are working.
  • Reply 10 of 13
    Solar for indoor use will require a high efficient panel ie 22% fully encapsulated that harvests from a wide spectrum of light 300nm - 1200nm (IR and UV energy).

    The other major challenge with solar for use in indoor light will be the MPPT (Maximum power point tracking) charge management circuit.

    Think of it like this:

    PV panel = engine
    MPPT charge management circuit = transmission

    Most solar panels use a MPPT circuit that I'll call 4th gear. Meaning in full sun the panel outputs the right amount of energy to make the transmission work and power goes to the battery. but these fail when the energy harvested falls below the optimized 4th gear.

    have you ever tried driving your car in 4th gear from a dead stop.. That is what happens to solar when it's used indoors. Unless you have a dynamic MPPT solution and a panel that harvests IR and UV.

    SunCore Corp in California has a patented solar charging solution for consumer electronics that addresses the above challenges. They are currently integrating solar into other CE products which will start showing up in retail this Fall and next Spring.
  • Reply 11 of 13
    shaminoshamino Posts: 465member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by GoodBird1a View Post

    Solar for indoor use will require a high efficient panel ie 22% fully encapsulated that harvests from a wide spectrum of light 300nm - 1200nm (IR and UV energy).  The other major challenge with solar for use in indoor light will be the MPPT (Maximum power point tracking) charge management circuit. ...

     

    I agree that these are important considerations, but I think it is safe to assume that Apple will be aware of them and develop/license/buy an appropriate solution as a part of any product.  They're not going to slap a few random parts together and ship a product that doesn't work.

  • Reply 12 of 13

    One would think a company the size of Apple will do just that.

     

    Lets look at Samsung's last attempt at a solar powered cell phone, another company that has all the resources at their fingertips. 

     

    S7550 Blue Earth - right Idea but missing some key technology to make it work. And they were using panels on the rear of the handset and not under a display screen.

     

    http://www.gsmarena.com/samsung_s7550_blue_earth-review-394.php

     

    After reviewing this in a tear down my team found out that there wasn't any intelligence in regards to harvesting solar and transferring that power into the battery in a variable voltage, variable current environment. 

     

    Again. Right idea just missing the needed technology to make it all work.

  • Reply 13 of 13
    shaminoshamino Posts: 465member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by GoodBird1a View Post

    One would think a company the size of Apple will do just that.

    Lets look at Samsung's last attempt at a solar powered cell phone, another company that has all the resources at their fingertips.  ...


     

    I don't doubt anything you are saying here, but I don't think it is fair to compare Apple's R&D with Samsung's.

     

    Apple has a long history of innovation.  They are also well known for sitting on a promising new product until they decide it is useful and ready.  They almost never ship a half-baked hardware product in order to claim "first" or something similar.

     

    Samsung, on the other hand, doesn't innovate much of anything.  They have some very good semiconductor fabrication facilities, but their finished products are not much different from the rest of the world's.  They combine lots of off the shelf parts in the same way everybody else does.  Their copying of competitor's software products (especially Apple's - where they can't even be bothered to draw new icons for the apps!) is well known and has made them the subject of numerous lawsuits.  Their main claim to fame is not that they do anything novel or unique, but that they can ship the same thing with higher reliability than their competition (LG, Motorola, countless Chinese brands, etc.)

     

    So it doesn't surprise me that their attempt to make a solar powered cell phone was a quick slap-together job without actually thinking about the nature of the problem or real-world product requirements.  They just wanted another check-box on their marketing literature in order to sell to corporate purchasing departments that will see it and not understand what they're looking at.

     

    Nothing I've seen in Apple (at least since the Jobs era - 2000 to the present) indicates that they work this way, and I don't think they're going to start today.

     

    I could, of course, be wrong, but it would surprise me greatly if Apple did ship such a substantial feature without thoroughly studying the problem and engineering a good solution.  And if the good solution proves to have a negative impact on the product's saleability (price, size, etc.), history shows that they will not ship a half-baked product, but will decide to not ship until those problems can be solved, even if it takes several years.

Sign In or Register to comment.