Not so long ago, solar chargers were a better idea in theory than in reality. Typical devices would require as much as four times as long to power up a phone as plugging into a wall outlet. This might work if you were spending all day in the park or on a camping trip but isn’t really a portable option for everyday life. They’re also bulky and heavy enough that few people choose to lug them around.
That’s changing. A powerful new charger called Solar Paper, thinner and lighter than an iPhone 6, can fully charge a phone almost as quickly as an ordinary outlet. The tiny solar panels, small enough to slide inside the pages of a book, can clip on a backpack and charge as you’re walking, and then sit inside a sunny windowsill as you work. In theory, if you’re around enough natural light during the day, your phone might be able to go completely off the grid.
“Our aim is to help people effectively use Solar Paper in their daily lives, and help them access the infinite, free and untaxed resource in the sky,” says designer SungUn Chang, the CEO of Yolk, the company making the device.
The charger only works while it’s in the sun. It doesn’t store electricity, but it’s compatible with many portable batteries that are already on the market.
Unlike most other solar chargers, it automatically resets if a cloud passes over. On other chargers, someone has to manually reset the device if the sunlight temporarily disappears. The charger also shows, in real time, how much current it’s generating, so it’s simple to tell if you might need to move to a sunnier spot.
The basic unit has two panels, enough to charge an iPhone 6 in two and a half hours. If you want a faster charge, or want to power something a little larger, like a tablet, an extra panel or two can be added on. Theoretically, you could keep adding more and more panels and potentially power something as large as a laptop, though that would defeat the design’s portability.
“Really there’s no limit,” says Chang. “But because our focus for now is bringing portable solar power to everyone, overall size and weight of the charger is very important.”
Less than two weeks after launching on Kickstarter, Solar Paper had already raised over half a million dollars. It’s partly a sign of how desperately people want solutions for battery life; Kickstarter also has dozens of backup batteries. But it also shows that there’s a market for renewable alternatives, as long as they look good and seem to work.