The problem with portability: power

CES vendors display a host of ways to generate and conserve electricity

LAS VEGAS — Whether it is a soldier in the field or a consumer on the go, powering electronic devices is a growing challenge as people become more dependent on portable technology.

Emerging technology introduced today at the Consumer Electronic Show could address those power needs on a small scale today, and perhaps at an enterprise level in the future.

MPower Technologies' emergency lighting and power device combines a flashlight and USB charger. Its double-barrel design contains standard batteries in one barrel and military-grade reserve battery technology in the other barrel, according to George Lupul, MPower's director of business development.

Any USB-chargeable technology can get power from the device.

The reserve battery keeps the electrolytes separate from the anode cations materials, giving it a 20-year shelf life. To tap into the emergency power, the user must turn a thumb screw to break a membrane which introduces the electrolytes to the battery.

"Once you break it, it becomes like a standard battery and can last a year or two," Lupul said.

The company plans to market the device to military and first-responder customers, he said.

"It could be used for a rescue radio for an Air Force pilot, for emergency beacons to locate personnel, or a whole host of other applications," Lupul said.

A line of universal laptop chargers and surge protectors from iGo are designed to reduce energy wasted delivering power to fully charged or idle devices, according to Andrew Stirling, the company's product manager.

Standard chargers draw power even when not connected to a device, he said.

"What our new green laptop chargers do is sense if your laptop needs power or not," Stirling said. "If it doesn't need power, it shuts off. If it does need power, it provides the power."

The chargers come with several adapter tips to fit most major laptops, he said.

The new surge protectors from iGo build on the smart charger idea.

"So you can save on more than just your laptop, you can now save on your monitors, printers, televisions, anything you like," Stirling said.

The surge protector also senses whether or not a particular device needs power. If something is on standby mode or off completely, the surge protector cuts off power completely.

The current product is not recommended for communication devices such as modems and fax machines that need power regularly. The device can't sense when a modem might need power after being idle for a time.

"We are working on improving that, because we see uses both in enterprises and data centers," Stirling said.

Another power-related issue is managing all the various plugs and adapters it takes to charge devices. Powermat developed technology to charge portable devices wirelessly, eliminating the need for plugs, according to Beth Harrison Meyer, the company's vice president of global marketing.

To use the technology a device's battery must be replaced with Powermat's power pack. Then, to charge the device it is just laid on the charging mat. Magnetic conduction makes the connection between charger and device.

In its current form, various stand-alone mats are used for charging stations, but Meyer said the technology will evolve.

"You can integrate this technology into kitchen countertops, walls and a variety of other ways," she said. "So the office without wires, the house without wires is all on the horizon."

Another technology on the horizon is solar power for everyday technology, according to Kailash Hiremath, the director of product development for Eton Corp.

Eton produces emergency radios and chargers that integrate solar panels and hand cranks. The technology is mainly for emergencies today, but solar panel efficiency is continually improving, Hiremath said.

"We are starting to apply solar technology to products that touch everyday activities, so we really want it to become a mainstream thing that proliferates everybody's lives," he said.

Eton's Scorpion line of radio and chargers are rugged and might have military applications, Hiremath said. For every minute of hand cranking, the Scorpion provides power for about a minute of talk time on a mobile phone, he said.

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.

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