Freescale Semiconductor on Monday is unveiling a new power conversion technology that the chipmaker says will dramatically enhance the efficiency of solar cells and other devices by allowing them to operate at low voltages.
That means a single solar cell attached to a mobile phone or other handheld device could charge the gadget. The bigger potential is to maximize the electricity generated from rooftop solar panels. which typically contain a dozen or more solar cells each. When a cloud or a tree shades part of a solar panel, power output from all the solar cells drops because they are linked together. By integrating Freescale’s power converter into each solar cell, those that aren’t shaded can still produce electricity, according to Arman Naghavi, general manager of Freesale’s Analog, Mixed-Signal & Power Division.
That’s because each solar cell can operate at much lower voltages when Freescale’s (FSL) converter is used. While most electronics need a jolt of 700 millivolts to begin working, Freescale’s technology allows them to operate on as little as 320 millivolts. (See video below.)
Sounds geeky but the consequences could be far-ranging, reducing electricity consumption and opening the door to a new generation of solar-powered devices. One big hurdle to using solar cells to power everything from laptops to street lights is that it takes too many of them to produce enough power to be practicable. After all, who’s going to carry around a solar panel to charge their MacBook.
Freescale’s technology could change that equation. “For instance, you wouldn’t have to put a battery in a garage door opener – just add a solar strip on the remote control,” Kevin Parmenter, a Freescale applications engineering manager, told Green Wombat. (Samsung last week announced it would start selling a mobile phone (photo above) equipped with a solar panel but it’s unclear just how much talk or texting time it would allow.)
Other uses are more sci-fi: self-powered nanosensors that tap the technology to harvest ambient heat or friction in the environment.
The converter will hit the market in the second half of 2009. Potential customers include solar cell makers like SunPower (SPWRA) and Suntech (STP) as well as biomedical companies and defense contractors. Freescale, headquartered in Austin, Texas, was spun out of Motorola (MOT) in 2004.
“It really helps the entire green movement,” says Naghavi. “We are seeing a tremendous interest from lots of areas historically we have never touched or played in.”