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Remote Controls And Other Devices to be Battery-Free

With the new tech, devices like remotes and keyboards could go battery-free and keep operating even in low-light settings. Just like calculators have done for decades.

Miniature solar panel
Credit: Ambient Photonics

If you were at school sometime since the 1970s, you may well have made use of a calculator powered by solar energy. Long before the large scale solar boom of recent years, many calculators were equipped with a solar cell strip that harnessed indoor light to display multiplications, square roots, and - let's not forget! - upside-down dirty words.

In the following decades, the focus shifted to big outdoor solar panels that power homes or entire communities. Now, Ambient Photonics wants to revive indoor solar: powering small electronic devices via household lighting. It claims a transition to indoor solar will be more environmentally friendly, given the carbon footprint of batteries and battery disposal.

It should be good news for simple convenience, the environment and our wallets, as the average American household, for example, buys 90 batteries a year. “Could we create these novel devices that just run forever?” says Bates Marshall, cofounder and CEO of Ambient Photonics.

The solar cells from the earlier calculators, known as amorphous silicon, didn’t have the power to do much else. However, with some clever tweaks and upgrades, Ambient's new tech works for numerous small gadgets - really anything that uses a coin cell, double- or triple-A, or nine-volt battery. “We can’t power my MacBook, but we can power the remote control,” Marshall says. “We can power the keyboard and the mouse, but we can’t power the monitor.”

Though alkaline battery production has a smaller footprint than lithium-ion, it still releases carbon. “Just because the batteries themselves are small, doesn’t mean the problem is,” Marshall says, adding Ambient’s tech emits 90 percent less carbon compared to similar battery-powered products. It also eliminates issues around battery disposal. Every year, Americans throw away three billion batteries!

Ambient's factory in California can now mass produce their cells at about $1 each. We could all start finding them in household gizmos in the not too distant future.


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