Solar Powered Laptops: Myth or Reality?


Since most modern people work, study and communicate using laptops, the need may arise to charge them when there’s no power outlet available. In this article, we’ll try to cover as many unusual (at least as of this year) devices for charging laptops as possible. Are alternative sources of energy capable of providing your device with enough power to run? We’ll make an attempt to figure it out.


 

I. Solar charging kits

Solar power is the optimal solution if you want to charge your laptop while camping, hiking or even cycling. Note that the technology used is constantly being developed, and the efficiency level may rise every year (which is good, of course, but you may want to eventually upgrade your solar panels to ensure better energy accumulation). There is another advantage: a laptop isn’t the only thing which can benefit from a solar panel. Actually, you can have all the generated energy stored in a power bank to charge smartphones and other small devices. Another pro is that it’s an eco-friendly means of charging which requires only the initial investment.

 

1. Voltaic Systems Arc 20 W Portable Solar Charger Kit for Laptops with External Battery Pack

This solar charger kit is one of the products that are recommended on travellers’ and cyclists’ forums. The monocrystalline solar cells ensure good efficiency and rapid charging. You can use this kit to charge your laptop when travelling, hiking, fishing, etc. The seller claims it takes 6.5 hours of exposing the panels to direct sunlight in order to charge a laptop, while charging a smartphone takes only an hour. The waterproof, UV and scratch-resistant coating is designed to provide the panels with enough durability to last long and serve you on the go. The 20 W / 18 V panels can be folded and have ETFE coating (not the common PET) in order to increase its durability. The manufacturer says it can last 5 years or longer. There’s a 19,800 mAh / 73 Wh backup battery to store energy (one fully charged battery can charge a laptop). The metal grommets are sturdy, so you can mount the kit on anything you want, including backpacks, bicycles, etc.

Technical details:

  • Included V72 battery;
  • 20 W solar charger kit;
  • Weight: 3.2 lbs (1.45 kg);
  • Dimensions: 10” x 0.1” x 6” (25.4 cm x 0.25 cm x 15.24 cm);
  • ETFE coating (thus water-resisting);
  • Monocrystalline solar cells;
  • Metal grommets;
  • РЎomes with a car adapter / car charger socket;
  • Battery: 19,800 mAh / 73 Watt hour.
  • Amazon rating: 5.0/5
  • Price: $278

 

Feedback summary

There are only 5 reviews (as of July 2017), but they rate the product as excellent: the kit is “100% problem free”, works perfectly and is very convenient to use. It seems to be a must have for all who are looking for a good solar charger kit. The only minor issue mentioned is that some Dell laptops require a model with a micro-processor in it in order to charge off the battery pack, but it can cost additional $8, as one of the users says. Still, it’s not a major drawback and more like a rare exception. Other than that, it’s a wonderful product to buy.

 

2. Goal Zero Yeti 150 Solar Generator Kit with Nomad 20 Solar Panel

This kit can be recharged via AC, 12 V or solar panels. It’s another favorite of those who want to use the best solar power solutions for travelling, hiking, etc. It’s also monocrystalline, has a 20 W solar capacity, and 2 A USB power output. The Nomad 20 panel is capable of charging the Yeti 150 in 16-30 hours (depending on weather conditions).

Technical details:

  • 2.1 A USB ports, 120 W 12 V ports;
  • 168 Wh lead acid battery (capable of powering up to 5 devices at once: 14 Ah at 12 V);
  • Dimensions: 11.2” x 11.2” x 9.5” (28.45 x 28.45 x 24.13 cm);
  • Weight: 17 pounds (7.7 kg);
  • Origin: China.
  • Amazon rating: 4.3/5
  • Price: $408.91

 

Feedback summary

Users like the model because of its performance, light weight, convenient handle for carrying, and nice battery. To quote one of the verified purchasers, it has “brilliant construction and functionality”. There are quite many reviews (more than 200), so the rating implies it’s a product worth buying. Negative reviews are mostly due to defective items or not managing to power their devices (which is kind of strange, since most users find its performance excellent, so there must be something wrong with their products too). Some also had it working for a short time until a part of it broke. Well, the majority of users claim it’s an efficient and convenient item, and their experience enables us to recommend the item.

 

3. X-DRAGON Solar Charger 40 W Sunpower (5 V USB + 18 V DC)

The system utilizes the SolarIQ technology which is used to automatically adjust the current and voltage to achieve maximum power ensuring the current of up to 2.8 A under direct sunlight. The solar cells are made in the US, and the manufacturer claims they provide 22%-25% efficiency (compared to the standard 15% in most models). The eyeholes make it possible to attach the panels easily while hiking or travelling.

What’s in the box?

  • 40 W Foldable Solar Charger;
  • 10 laptop connectors;
  • DC cable;
  • USB cables;
  • Carabiners;
  • Instruction;
  • 18 months warranty.

 

Technical details:

  • Dual-Port Output: USB port (5 V / 2A) for charging 5 V gadgets, and 18 V DC output (18 V / 2 A) for charging laptops or other 18 V devices;
  • SolarIQ technology;
  • Materials: Solar cells + PET + EVA + TPT;
  • FCC, RoHS, CE certified;
  • Solar panels peak power: 40 W;
  • Transformation efficiency: 22% – 25%;
  • Output: USB 5 V 2.8 A / DC 18 V 1.6A (Max.);
  • Foled size: 265 x 160 x 70 mm / 10.43 x 6.30 x 2.76 inches;
  • Unfolded size: 680 x 530 x 5 mm / 26.77 x 20.87 x 0.20 inches;
  • Net weight: 1157 g / 40.80 oz.
  • Note: it’s recommended to turn off your laptop before charging (it’s true only of the 18 V DC port).
  • Amazon rating: 4.3/5
  • Price: $107.99

 

Feedback summary

With a rating of 4.3/5, it’s an item worth looking at (and there are over 400 reviews, so it’s one of the most popular solar charger kits). It seems to be a model which is good in all (or nearly all) its aspects: from efficiency to convenience. Yet there are drawbacks too: there’s a person reporting it’s not expensive because there are no built-in protectors, and he got his devices damaged (though we’re unsure whether it’s true, as we don’t have the product to test). Besides, it is said to work well only when exposed to direct sunlight (and not when hanging in front of the window), but it cannot be considered a flaw, since all solar chargers are not supposed to be used with windows. So the main issue is the voltage which can damage devices (this problem is mentioned more than once), so be careful. Other than that, there are many reviews stating it’s a reliable and efficient product for charging using solar energy.

 

Other products of this kind to consider:

 

II. Other useful devices

1. Voltaic Systems - Array USB Solar Backpack with Backup Battery Pack

If you happen to go hiking, it’s very likely that you won’t have a power outlet to charge your laptop. Solar panel systems are not only stationary: there are items which combine their primary function and charging devices using compact solar panels. Such is the solar backpack manufactured by Voltaic Systems: it has rugged monocrystalline panels with 10W total peak output at 6V or 18V. They are lightweight, so it’s easy to carry them during long journeys, and they’re also waterproof, so it’s not supposed to be damaged by rain. It’s urethane-coated to ensure better protection of the panels. There’s also a removable and portable V72 battery pack. According to the seller, it takes 1 hour of sunlight exposure to charge a laptop for 40 minutes of working. The backpack itself is made of lightweight, water, and UV resistant fabric made of recycled PET (plastic bottles). Its capacity makes up 25 L. The item features many pockets, as well as padded laptop and tablet sleeves. Note that you may need an additional adapter to charge your laptop. As the seller claims, “there are 10 different adaptors sent in this item to accommodate many the many different types.”

Technical details:

  • Can be used for carrying laptops of up to 15” (38.1 cm);
  • Features a Voltaic V72 Laptop Battery Pack (19,800mAh);
  • Capacity: 25 L;
  • 5 V / 2 A USB and 12 V / 4 A, 16 V / 3.5 A, 19 V / 3 A selectable outputs which can be charged from the included AC (wall) or DC (car) charger;
  • Weight: 5.1 pounds (2.3 kg);
  • Dimensions: 19” x 7” x 11” (48.3 cm x 17.8 cm x 28 cm);
  • Colors: charcoal or silver;
  • Amazon rating: 4.2/5
  • Price: $299.00

 

Feedback summary

There are 30 reviews (as of the time the article is being written), and 6 of them are critical: users mention poor quality materials falling apart and failure to charge. However, the rest of the reviewers (24 of them) were satisfied with the purchase: they noted high rate of charging, quality materials and nice appearance. Perhaps, those who posted negative reviews got lemons, because most users love the backpack for its efficiency.

 

2. Voltaic Systems Solar Charger Briefcase

If a backpack isn’t a kind of a thing that you need, you can opt for something that looks more serious. For instance, the Voltaic Systems Solar Charger Briefcase. It’s a case in which you can carry the laptop you want to charge, and it’s so stylish and serious that you can take it to work (provided the road to your office is very long and sunny!). This briefcase features one monocrystalline solar panel with the total peak output of 17.6 W at 18 V. Just like the backpack listed above, it’s urethane-coated, waterproof and lightweight. As the seller claims, it takes 6.5 hours in direct sunlight to charge a laptop. It’s also made of recycled PET. The capacity makes up 575 cubic inches (~9422 cubic cm). There’s a padded laptop sleeve for devices of up to 17” (43.2 cm), a shoulder strap which can be removed, a sleeve for documents, and other pockets. Besides, there’s a 20,000 mAh / 72 Wh rechargeable battery pack.

Technical details:

  • 5 V / 2 A USB and 12 V / 4 A, 16 V / 3.5 A, 19 V / 3 A selectable outputs which can be charged from the included AC (wall) or DC (car) charger;
  • Coating: urethane;
  • Storage capacity: 575 cubic inches (9422 cubic cm);
  • Weight: 4.5 pounds (2 kg);
  • Dimensions: 3.5” x 13.5” x 18” (8.9 cm x 34.3 cm x 45.7 cm).
  • Amazon rating: 4.1/5
  • Price: $299.00

 

Feedback summary

There are only 4 reviews, but the average rating makes up 4.1/5, so it is supposed to be a decent item. According to the verified purchasers, there are several points a potential buyer may be interested in. First, the solar panel can be detached, so you can use it separately in case you need it somewhere else. Yet they say the screw caps are made of plastic, so they can break quite easily (as one of the verified users assumes). Second, there’s an LED light on the briefcase, and the solar panel can also be detached from it. The battery quality is said to be good, but it’s quite heavy. Third, there is no connector to connect the solar panel directly to USB devices, so you always need to have a battery as a mediator. There are people reporting that it works well and charges devices at a good rate. One person also said that it’s too overpriced and that he bought it from the manufacturer at a lower price. Well, since all negative issues are mostly related to the technical aspect of using the solar panel separately or without the battery, we can conclude that it’s a product worth recommending provided you don’t mind charging devices via the battery.

 

III. Car power inverters

The easiest way to power your laptop if you don’t have a device designed specifically for it is to find a car and use a car power inverter.

 

 Foval 150W Car Power Inverter DC 12V to 110V AC Converter with 3.1A Dual USB Charger

This car power inverter is one of the best models available on Amazon. It’s a 150 W power inverter with 2 USB ports and AC outlets. The max total output is 3.1 A. It’s very lightweight (see details) and portable, so it can be carried in a backpack easily (in case you need to take it somewhere, though it’s definitely more convenient to keep it in your car). There’s a built-in fuse which is designed to protect the device. The metal housing makes it rather durable, so if you’re one of those who tend to drop devices often (well, we all love doing so from time to time!), it is supposed to survive such a thing! Besides, there’s a cooling fan to keep the inverter cool. The LED indicates the device modes: the green is for operation, and the red means there’s a failure in the system.

Technical details:

  • Total Power: 150 W;
  • Input: DC 12V/40 A;
  • AC Output: 110 V;
  • USB Output1-2: DC 5 V / 3.1 A;
  • Size: 3.2 x 2.48 x 1.45 inches (81 x 63 x 37 mm);
  • Weight: 8 oz (295 g);
  • Cord length: ~ 16” (40.6 cm);
  • Colour: red.
  • Amazon rating: 4.6/5
  • Price: $17.98

 

Feedback summary

The feedback available on Amazon suggests it’s good car power outlet which is well-built, the fan is quiet, and the performance is very good. Some would like to have an on/off switch added to it, though it’s not a big issue. Among the flaws mentioned are failing to work for a long time, poor design (in rare cases, the plug in can be too large and cover the USB ports; there’s a person stating it has a very strong plastic or chemical smell. Also, one user reported spectacular capacitor explosion. Yet these cases seem to be exceptions, since the majority of users love the inverter and use it successfully.

Other products of this kind to consider:

 

IV. Portable wind turbines

Well, this industry is still full of vacant places which are waiting for new companies to fill them. One of such entrepreneurs and inventors is Skajaquoda, a Kickstarter used that launched a campaign to use crowdfunding to introduce the first portable wind turbine to the market. Unfortunately, the whole thing proved to be a fraud, and the device never existed. There’s even a piece of news on a major Icelandic website (the fraudsters are from Iceland) which states they’ve been charged. We include this abstract to the list of alternative ways to charge your laptop to warn you that this campaign, which seems to be the only one dedicated to portable wind turbines, is nothing but scam (though some outdated articles still refer to this project), so please do not invest in it. If you don’t believe us, check the commentaries on the campaign page or visit this link.

Expect for this fictional wind turbine, there are no portable versions that have even been introduced yet (at least as of July 2017). There are wind turbines of decent sizes, but they’re not good for taking it with you wherever you want and cannot be considered portable. Beware of such projects!

P.S. There’s the Vindur project which is still being developed with the help of the crowdfunded sources, but it’s still in development, and those who got their sample items (well, at least they got them!) do not look like the ones they had pledged for, so we cannot say whether this item can be used at all and what kind of a thing it is.

 

V. Micro hydroelectric power plants

Unlike the previous case, there’s an example of a Kickstarter campaign that resulted in having some of the contributors enjoying their sample units: Blue Freedom is a company which develops a micro hydroelectric power plant which… well, it’s strange, but those who got their devices report that it really works (though there are some who didn’t receive their gizmos, but the developer keeps on communicating with the backers and wants to solve the issues). So, back to the power plant.

Blue Freedom

The campaign in question is available here. The Blue Freedom company introduced an eponymous device which is said to be capable of generating electricity using water (e.g. creeks, etc.). Wherever you can find fluent water, you can use the device.

It produces 5 W of energy and does it when the rotor is in fluent water. The output is 1 A. It turns on automatically (actually, there seems to be no switching mechanism, since it requires water to produce energy), and there’s a switch only for the LED lamp. All you need to do is to plug in the device you want to charge using the USB port. The process of charging starts upon plugging in and ends when you unplug it, so there’s no integrated power bank to store generated energy.

The manufacturer says it produces some noise when working, but they work on reducing the level of noise. We suppose that a tiny rotor cannot roar terribly, so it’s not a big issue. The developer says it’s protected from overheating, so some heating seen in the course of generating energy isn’t likely to be dangerous.

If you are an owner of a Blue Freedom, note that the turbine and the drive shaft are waterproof, but the casing is not – it’s only splash-proof, so it’s not intended to be thrown into water.

It’s also worthy of note that in order to charge your laptop using USB, it must be an advanced laptop with USB type C integrated, so it’s not a solution everyone can use due to technical limitations of both power banks and laptops. If you are one of those whose laptop can be powered via USB, it’s another option you can choose.

Here are the measures of the device:

  • Diameter: 7.9 inches / 20 cm;
  • Height: 2.2 inches / 5.5 cm;
  • Weight: 0.9 pounds / 400 g (depends on the included power pack).
  • The current cost of the item is $299. You can order it at the official website.

 

VI. Bicycle energy

There any many people who like travelling by bike, and some of them would love to charge their devices at the same time. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a product which proved to be reliable and easy to use. Most of such travelers use hub dynamos the majority of which are currently unavailable (like this one, for instance). To build a bicycle dynamo of your own, you’ll need a motor (like this one, which is unavailable too, or this one which is sold at the price of $189.99). If you manage to find a good one, for instance, Hacker A50-16L RC motor, you can have a device to charge your laptop while cycling. It really works, as such solutions are discussed on cyclist forums, and there are people reporting they enjoyed using the systems they had assembled. It takes some engineering skills to build a system like this, so it’s not enough just to click a couple of links on Amazon to charge your laptop using a bicycle.

Yet there are people who want to introduce innovative devices they develop, and Kickstarter is here again to help them do it. The Siva Cycle Atom is the project led by Aaron Latzke and David Delcourt. They launched a campaign to gather money to develop a kit for generating electricity as you cycle. Well, there are people who got their devices and said the installation was a breeze, they managed to charge their smartphones and loved it. Others claimed they failed to install it or had issues with the item. Now the Kickstarter campaign is over, and there’s a link on the project page saying you can order the product on their website, which, for some reason, does not seem to work. It’s not clear how you can get the Atom device if you decide to buy it, but there’s still a product which is more or less easy to use and proves to be rather efficient (at least in the cases of several users who reported successful usage in the comments).

 

VII. Conclusion

There are many varieties of portable devices which can be used for charging a laptop, but it seems to be that the most reliable and efficient way to do it is to use solar panels. There are other interesting energy sources, such as thermo pots, cycling and even hand cranks, but it takes quite a lot of time to charge something using them, so they are not as efficient as you might want them to be. Still, there are options for various situations, budgets and preferences!

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