CTIA - Reporter's notebook: solar charger spans continents

Solar powered charger can power up any mobile phone, MP3 players, GPS devices and digital cameras

A small booth at the back of the show floor is attracting a lot of attention.

While I stood around, two people exchanged business cards with the man working the stand, promising to place orders for the product. It was nothing related to the iPhone or the latest mobile social-networking service -- topics that are consuming this year's CTIA Wireless I.T. and Entertainment conference in San Francisco.

Instead, the booth was stocked with a relatively simple device: the Solio, a small solar powered charger that can power up any mobile phone as well as MP3 players, GPS (Global Positioning System) devices and digital cameras.

A key feature of the Solio is the battery. The solar cells charge the battery, which in turn charges the device. That means you can leave it outside during the day, when you might be using your phone, and bring it in to power the phone overnight. One charge of the Solio can power two mobile phone batteries.

The Solio also can be plugged into an electrical outlet so people can use whatever power source is available and think of it as their universal charger, said Mike Levin, vice president of business development for Better Energy Systems, the company that makes the Solio.

Various models cost from US$79 to $199, depending on durability and the speed that the solar panels can charge the batteries.

Solios have been on the market already for a couple of years and a few hundred thousand have sold, Levin said.

The most expensive model is made of Magnesium Oxide and can withstand very hot temperatures. The company is targeting government users and other people who might travel to locations with extreme temperatures for that one.

According to research commissioned by Better Energy Systems, an average person who uses the solar capability of the Solio to charge their phone 60 percent of the time would pay off the US$100 unit in about 10 years, in terms of electricity savings.

While Solios might be a neat gadget for many people, Better Energy Systems has some interesting prospects in the developing world. The company's sustainability officer is exploring several potential applications, Levin said. One is using the capability of the Solio to power a one or three watt LED light. People in developing countries could use the Solio to replace their kerosene-powered lights, which aren't kind to the environment.

In addition, Better Energy Systems is working with the Grameen Foundation's Village Phone project. The project offers small loans to people who can then buy a mobile phone and rent it on a per-call basis to their neighbors. The project currently relies on batteries to power the phones but Better Energy Systems is hoping to offer users Solios instead.

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