Speculation and circumstantial evidence points toward possibility of Apple using solar in upcoming products

Image: 1iphone5wallpaper.com

Image: 1iphone5wallpaper.com

There has long been speculation about Apple incorporating a solar panel into its products, both for environmental reasons and to boost battery-life. There have been Mobile-Solar Apple Jobs that have vanished after discovery, tons of patents, trial rumors and of course the Solar effort/expertise on Apple’s Data Centers and new Campus 2 building. This week, Seeking Alpha has a highly speculative piece by Matt Margolis suggesting that the evidence may be mounting for the iPhone 6 being the product Apple uses to bring the Solar idea to market.

Before we get too far into the speculation, it is worthwhile to note that the surface area of an iPhone would hardly be enough to keep a charge let alone recharge a phone even with the most efficient solar technology in labs today. However, all of the evidence weighed together might make you forget all of that ‘science’…

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Margolis makes much of suggestions that Apple may be planning to replace Gorilla Glass with sapphire – something we’ve suggested is possible though far from certain – without explaining why he believes this makes solar more likely, other than the vague idea that it would be more protective of ‘cool stuff’ underneath. The techniques he goes on to describe would arguably be more practical with glass than with sapphire.

He references Apple patents. Here he’s on somewhat stronger ground: there have certainly been no shortage of these. As I said when commenting on one of them:

We don’t often cover Apple patent filings, as the company patents all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons (many of them defensive), while only a handful of the ideas make it to market. This one may stand a greater chance of making it into production than most, however, as Apple is known to be a huge fan of renewable energy.

But some of those patents go back years: there is nothing in them to give any clue as to when, if ever, the ideas might make it into products. There have also been supply chain rumors of evaluation trials, but these again date back to 2011.


Then we have job descriptions. Again, no argument from us, especially as we’re the source of two of the ones he cites. But again, Apple works on many things for years. A job listing is evidence of nothing more than interest in a field, not in definite plans to launch, and certainly not on specific timings.

Finally, we come to the one piece of evidence that may give a clue as to timescales: a reasonably large order placed by “a leading smartphone company” for $68M worth of solar cell coating equipment, delivery of which is scheduled to be completed by the end of Q2 this year.

Apple has plenty of cash to spend on lab equipment, but I have to confess that $68M’s worth of machinery does sound rather more like it’s geared to production volumes.

There is, though, no evidence that the customer is Apple. Margolis suggests that the term ‘leading’ implies it has to be Apple or Samsung, but I again think he’s reading far too much into a very loose term. Motorola, LG, HTC, Sony, Xiaomi and Huawei would all be equally viable candidates. And what if the leading smartphone company is just using the solar tech for its buildings. We know Apple and everyone else are building out solar farms at a record pace.

solar panels

Does the idea make sense?

Solar panels have, until recently, been pretty inefficient. You need plenty of area and lots of sunlight in order to generate worthwhile amounts of power. Of all of Apple’s products, the iPhone offers some of the least surface area to work with. The latest generation of solar panels are a lot more efficient reaching close to 40% in the labs, but still, there’s no way that a panel the size of an iPhone screen – even the larger one we expect in the iPhone 6 – is going to power the phone on its own.

But delivering a useful boost to battery-life, an hour or so, say, would likely be feasible. Not, admittedly, if the phone spends all its time in your pocket or bag when not in use, but I can certainly envisage a situation where you know you’re getting low on power and you’d be glad of the opportunity to be able to put it out on a desk or table to help you make it through the day.

So, take a small practical benefit. Add Apple’s love of solar power. Then add the marketing spin made possible by a combination of the extra battery-life and helping to save the planet. To me, that adds up to a credible story.

Think iPhone 5s. The Touch ID sensor saves a couple of seconds entering a passcode, and a 64-bit chip in a smartphone has rather limited practical value as yet, but Apple spun both into major features that got a huge amount of media attention and were apparently responsible for the 5s being massively more successful than the 5c.

logitech solar keyboard

<a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/B004MF11MU?tag=thepartim-20&camp=0&creative=0&linkCode=as4&creativeASIN=B004MF11MU&adid=1JR6859CRZ8G4J94X442&">Logitech’s Solar Keyboard</a> uses ambient office light to charge.<a href="http://viptest.9to5mac.com/2012/05/30/logitech-wireless-solar-keyboard-k760-shrinks-but-adds-bluetooth-capabilities-for-ios-devices/"> Review</a>

What if Apple could say leaving your iPhone 6 on your desk all day could draw enough ambient light energy to keep it from losing charge. Or what if it gave you an extra hour or two a day? Would that be worthwhile?

Will we see solar power in the iPhone 6? It’s not a certainty by any means, but it is, I would say, interesting thing to think about.

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  1. mikhailt - 9 years ago

    I agree, there’s just not enough surface to do anything special and the cells are not that efficient yet. I’d imagine if they get it to 50% or above, it might work. Right now, IIRC, cells at volume production levels are something like 10-15% efficient at converting light to power?

    Also, doesn’t it require more parts and space where Apple is still focusing on slimming it down? I’d imagine that Apple’ll reserve this for iPhone 6S rather iPhone 6 since S series don’t get design changes.

    I think Apple’d get more efficient through smaller nm process for their A8 chips (as well as the custom GPUs they might be working on) and maybe a more denser battery if they can find a new technology to do this.

    What about folks with cases? I don’t know anybody in my family leaving an iPhone out without a case. I doubt this would help.

    I saw some research that solar cells can be transparent, so is it possible Apple found somebody who can provide coating that’d work on their Apple Stores? I’m sure they’d love to make their Apple Stores more energy efficient.

    • Greg Kaplan (@kaplag) - 9 years ago

      I don’t know the tech super well, but battery is a major obstacle to slimming down. if they find a way to reduce battery dependency they can probably get some more space. Especially if this is built into the display tech.

      but who knows. it sounds far fetched, but this to me is way more interesting a rumor than “a bigger iPhone”

    • Ben Lovejoy - 9 years ago

      Today’s panels are up in the 30-40 percent range. It still doesn’t make a massive amount of sense from a practical perspective, but, as I say, throw in Apple’s fondness for solar and the potential for marketing spin, and it becomes at least credible.

  2. We can all dream, can’t we? I would think that something that leverages motion for charging the battery would be more effective for smartphones, for the reason you highlight above…they spend all day in our pockets.

  3. Mr. Grey (@mister_grey) - 9 years ago

    I disagree. There is nothing in the evidence to suggest or imply that Apple is adding solar power capabilities to the iPhone. On the face of it, it seems like it would be a worthless thing to do which means that even if you had any evidence they were going to attempt it (you don’t), I would still think they won’t do it because it makes no sense in the first place.

    • Tallest Skil - 9 years ago

      See, when I say things like that, people immediately discount it.

      Guess the acceptance of common sense and intelligence hinges on not having a pretty face.

      You’re dead right.

      • Mr. Grey (@mister_grey) - 9 years ago

        I dunno, nothing personal, but I think me at my most strident, pedantic and didactic is like you on those rare days when you are being cordial. I am also sometimes mean and dismissive, (part of the nature of debates IMO), but you seem to actually take *delight* in being that way, and spend the majority of your forum time belittling people, making them cry, and so forth.

        When I do it, it’s because I’m angry or the person I’m talking to is an idiot or mean and gets me riled up, and I feel bad afterwards and sometimes apologise. When you do it, it comes across as if you like it and I’ve yet to see you ever admit to being wrong, let alone contrite or sorry about what you said to someone. Just sit down one time and think about the huge number of people you make unhappy every single day. Day after day. Why? In most cases they didn’t deserve it. Sometimes they are just kids.

      • Tallest Skil - 9 years ago

        People oughtn’t act like idiots. Calling out idiocy is the only way to get them to stop.

  4. cycletothecinema - 9 years ago

    loads of watches have solar cells on the face that keep them going indefinitely, not power hungry gps watches, but still…

    • rettun1 - 9 years ago

      Good point. Maybe they’ll bring this to their watch first, then roll it out to the phones, tablets, laptops later. Even if it doesn’t charge it, giving a little extra battery could be worth it

  5. Scophi - 9 years ago

    I’m not usually anti-progress, but I’m going to blow this idea off as ridiculous.

    How many people (1) are outside for any length of time, (2) keep their technology in direct sunlight for any length of time, and/or (3) are away from power sources for any length of time?

    I’m not saying there aren’t those who work outside all day. But those are a small percentage of the population. We are not an agrarian society. Most people are indoors for most of the day. When I am outside, my phone is in my pocket. I don’t walk around with it exposed to the sun or leave it sitting on a lit surface, more so for my laptop.

    Adding to that, most new cars have power/USB outlets and traditional battery technology is improving…I’m not sure I see the point of adding solar capability to it’s devices.

    Now, adding solar to it’s new spaceship campus…that makes sense.

    (Perhaps Apple is using the solar technology for something other than power…say photo-adaptive screens that reduce glare or make iPhones and iPads easier to read in direct light.)

  6. PMZanetti - 9 years ago

    Of course. It’s a miracle innovation. Anything from a marginal improvement to all day battery life would be worth it. User does nothing, iPhone last longer.

    With the iPad, I suppose the potential for increased life is even greater. Imagine an iPad that almost never has to be charged!

  7. Jason Parfitt (@jparf) - 9 years ago

    I’d be more inclined to say this would be the innovative feature on the iPhone 6s.

  8. zubeirg87 - 9 years ago

    I’m pretty sure this is not coming to the iPhone ever, or at least not any time soon. Firstly the tech is far from being efficient enough to give any significant boost in battery on a power hungry device. Secondly, most people most of the time do not expose their smartphones. It is not safe to do so, and I don’t think Apple would be encouraging it through such a feature.
    However this would make perfect sense in a watch. Rumour has it they’ve already been struggling with the iWatch battery. So any battery boost for the smart watch would be most welcome. Besides, a watch always stay exposed, so again it would be the perfect place to put it. Furthermore they could use the entire surface of the watch for the solar cells, not just the display.

  9. rettun1 - 9 years ago

    A question about batteries: isn’t it bad to have something charging all the time? I thought one was supposed to charge it when you are very low, and charge it until it is full and then unplug

    • mikhailt - 9 years ago

      Modern batteries are smart enough with their own IC chips to tackle this pretty well, so you no longer have to do that. You’re still recommended to do it once in every several months but it’s not important as it was a few years ago.

      In addition, it doesn’t really have to be used to charge the battery but rather power some of the least hungry components like the M7 processor that track motions and such. It’d reduce the need for the battery to discharge at a higher rate.

  10. Salvador Sanchez - 9 years ago

    Wrist watches “charge” with movement, I think that’s a better approach than solar. When people are at their desks they can charge the phone or iPad in a conventional way, it’s when they are in movement that they lack a source of energy, and they won’t be holding their devices towards the sun, but they will usually keep in movement.

  11. Stephen Minton - 9 years ago

    If Apple is investing in solar power gizmos, I’ll bet that this is for the iWatch, not the iPhone.

    Think about it. A watch is on your wrist, so can be constantly charging from sunlight. It needs less power than a phone, so whatever charge it can suck up is more useful in terms of the time ratio. People will want watches to run for days between charges, not hours, so this potentially helps to solve one of the biggest challenges for this product category. The entire watch could form the surface area for solar charging.

    It won’t even be the first solar-powered watch, either.

    • I agree.
      The watch is always on your wrist, is very inconvenient to remove it just because the battery is low while you can always charge your phone/tablet with a PC or in the future with a wireless charge station

  12. Derek Currie - 9 years ago

    No, not gonna happen. Here’s why: Current solar panels, which are incredibly inefficient at converting the sun’s radiation into usable battery energy (t about 12% conversion the last time I checked), REQUIRE being out in DIRECT sunlight. Sitting behind a windows doesn’t cut it. Glass filters out the highest energy electromagnetic waves required for the most efficient energy conversion. I can’t imagine sapphire glass being at all superior for transmission of sunlight.

    There are dozens of solar panels on the market that can be stuck out an openable window with a wire that can be plugged into just about any cell phone. That’s the state of the technology. No one is going to stick their iPhone out a window. If Apple makes a solar panel for the iPhone that sticks out the window, what’s the point seeing as the market is already saturated.

    Or is someone suggesting putting a solar panel on top of a hat while strolling outside, or sticking an iPhone on a pole that poke out of the top of one’s coat while outside?

    The best option these days is to have large permanent solar panels on your building, either connecting them directly to your mains or connecting them to a supplemental battery/fuel cell system. Plug your iPhone charger into that power source and off you go.

  13. coinaphrase - 9 years ago

    If you read the Manz PR carefully, it doesn’t say this is necessarily solar power. It says coating technology in displays. There are other ways that could be used, such as scratch resistance, or changing the display’s transmissive or reflective properties, such as readability outdoors.

    Also, the PR says 50M Euro in new orders for their display division, so not necessarily a single buyer/order.

    I think this is interesting, but people jumped to unsupported conclusions.

  14. Scott Sterling - 9 years ago

    No No No. iPhones live in pockets, end of story.

    BUT maybe Apple builds a charging device that absorbs energy all day from light, then you plug your phone into it at night.

    • Derek Currie - 9 years ago

      There are already solar charging devices (required to be kept outside your window for effectiveness) available for iPhone. I suppose Apple could make an ‘official Apple solar charger’, but they typically don’t bother.

  15. Valan Chan - 9 years ago

    I think we can get too hung up on efficiency percentages. For instance something may be 50% efficient but works only in brightlight while another may be 25% efficient but works in your pocket.

  16. Beezy G - 9 years ago

    Let’s all remember that this is what Apple does… they make products that people may have originally thought to be impossible. There may be an innovative way that they would like to incorporate solar cell technology other than powering an “entire” device.

  17. Here’s my 2 cents worth: I think that it relates more to wearable technology such as the rumoured “iWatch” project where it will be able to serve two functions; aid battery life and detect sunlight/UV levels to warn you if your being exposed to high UV levels. Hate sunburn like crazy being an Australian so something like this could be a really big selling point in warmer countries.

    (BTW, I think they will call it the “new iPod” rather than “iWatch”)

  18. Thomas Durfee - 9 years ago

    What if this is for the iWatch?

  19. ikir - 9 years ago

    64bit marginal?? LoL, some software are 1,8-2x faster

    • Ben Lovejoy - 9 years ago

      There is always a speed gain with each generation of processor, but the 64-bit element is marginal.

  20. Jan Zegers - 9 years ago

    What if solar + movement energy would deliver just enough power to charge a watch indefinitely? No need for charging at all. That would be groundbreaking. It’s a small device after all, while the dirty, battery-draining work will be done by the iPhone in your pocket. That way, the device would’nt need a (Lightning) connector at all, because everything is done wirelessly, which saves some spaces as well.

  21. It might be a little early for this technology to premier on an iPhone 6. But I believe we are heading towards technology with self sufficient energy generation and this could be the first step there. Whether it may be solar panels, motion energy or tiny windmills. Any item will have its own mix of energy generating tools on board. And one day there will be no need to charge them through power plants. Same is true btw for cars, houses or any other energy consuming item.

  22. Scott Sterling - 9 years ago

    Watches have already been powered by the motion of your wrist, by batteries, and by solar.

    Could the back of the iWatch also somehow absorb energy from the heat of the skin?

  23. Wouldn’t the phone/pad also charge by virtue of the fact that it’s being used as well? Recovering some of the light from the screen itself?

    • frankman91 - 9 years ago

      The photons from the screen that interacted with the solar cell would be slowed and fall out of the visible light spectrum, so the interaction light particles from the screen would be blocked, so yes the screen would potentially feed back in to the cell, the lost brightness would have to be compensated for so the benefit is lost; no free lunch, no proprietorial motion.


Avatar for Ben Lovejoy Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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