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Small-Scale Solar Tech
Let's face it: the high-end solar equipment is just too much for most people. When some lucky scientists find a way to make solar energy both compact and inexpensive, then we can use it freely, but until then installing solar panels on ours roofs, hooking up solar panels to our cars, and arranging solar capacitors in our gardens are projects a little too large for us to tackle in the middle of our busy lives. Fortunately, such large scale projects—while becoming more and more feasible as time goes on, especially in warmer climates—are not our only options.
Thanks to the marketability of eco-friendly technology and the continuing work that researchers are doing on the subject, many companies have developed smaller, simple devices that incorporate solar technology, including cell phones, PDS, and GPS units. In most cases, these devices are small enough to hold in your hand or carry around over your shoulder and use solar panels primarily to lower their energy requirement, meaning that battery charges last longer and overall energy use is decreased thanks to a little sunlight. Not unlike the little solar additions you can find on calculators, these examples of eco-friendly device attempt to integrate unobtrusive solar technology into every day life.
Here are several excellent examples of solar-powered gadgets you can keep an eye open for as the days become brighter—and take note! Many of these products are or will be available in the United States, for prices equivalent to the non-solar options.
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While many people own cell phones, few think of them as potential solar-energy devices, since they spend a lot of time in pockets and not much time absorbing sunrays. But just a few minutes on the dashboard of your car or by your window can make a difference. Many models, such as Samsung's much-touted Blue Earth model or the Green Palm phone LG is developing, which should give you about 3 minutes of talk time for 10 minutes of absorbing sunlight out on the green grass...or wherever. Plus, many of these phones also feature recyclable plastics as part of their construction.
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Portable Music Players
If you're looking for a more fun-oriented solar gadget, try looking for MP3 players or gaming devices that are focused on using solar energy. One particular device from China, the MP4 Player Mobile Power Station, actually does both: the device can play MP3 music files, download and read e-books (out loud and in Dutch, if you prefer), and play games with the NES emulator. When you want to get an extra sunshine boost, just unfold the player into its two clamshell solar panels and give your batteries some recharge time.
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While laptops themselves are still too bulky and power-intensive to be good subjects for a solar reinvention, there are a few laptop accessories that lend themselves to eco-friendly designs. Eclipse Solar Gear, for instance, has created a solar-powered laptop case designed to only to charge laptops but also smaller devices—plus, it doesn't look completely ridiculous when you carry it around. If you prefer something less rigid, Eclipse Solar has also designed cloth-based laptop carrying cases with shoulder straps, although these have not proven to be as effective at capturing sunlight, especially while riding under your arm.
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Even if you don't have solar device that directly charges itself via sunlight, you can still choose from a variety of external solar charges, which have been proven to work and come in a variety of different shapes, sizes, and styles. The iSun, for instance, is a small clamshell device that comes with seven different types of plug-ins so that it can work with phones, GPS units, and other devices. There are also sun-powered battery chargers for recharging your AA or AAA batteries (Sundance Solar offers some stylish chargers as well). There are also a variety of roll-out solar chargers, especially handy when you're lying on the grass or going on camping trips.
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Since GPS units spend more time in the sun than most handheld gadgets, it is strange that there have been far fewer efforts to add solar-charging to the route-finding devices. However, some models are available, like the Suntrac from Taiwan--a waterproof device made for boats and trailers. If you're looking for a compact portable version, you can try TranSystem's swiveling i-Blue757 or Proporta's Bluetooth GPS Receiver.
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Solar Water Heating
If smaller devices just aren't enough to satisfy your solar needs, you may want to consider some of the newer solar-powered water heaters, which excel at saving costs and are highly tax deductible. Most estimates show that solar water heaters pay for themselves within three or four years. Of course, if you living in a colder or overcast climate than other eco-friendly options, like a geothermal heater, are more practical, but in sunny climes there's nothing like a solar water heater. Although installation can sometimes be problematic, solar water heating is becoming an ideal option for developing countries located in Africa and Asia.
For other information on solar gadgets, keep your eyes open! Companies are working to produce new solar devices, and the perfect one for you may be just around the corner.
Photos thanks to Gizmodo, Treehugger, BornRich, and Super Eco.