Take Zap! Tech Geeks, Starved for More Battery Power, Give Themselves a Charge

Originally published February 7, 2012

By Geoffrey A. Fowler and Ian Sherr


Any geek can tell you that battery life hasn’t kept up with gadget innovations. But not to worry: Inventors are figuring out how to turn geeks into batteries.

While most gadget lovers hunt for empty wall sockets to charge their devices, Kevin Bartholomew just plugs his cellphone into his hip. That is where he keeps a nine-inch device looped around his belt that converts the kinetic energy of his motion into enough power to keep his devices running.

Mr. Bartholomew’s tube-shaped personal energy generator, called the nPower PEG, can turn 15 minutes of walking into a minute of phone talk time.

It is a good alternative to finding a plug, depending on how much exercise you get, says the 31-year-old electrical engineer from Logan, Utah.

The latest in body-powered technology includes gizmos that absorb excess energy produced by motion, like the jiggle of a backpack or bend of a knee. There are T-shirts that capture the electricity in sound waves, boots that convert walking into energy and solar panels that attach to everything from pants to bikes.

A tech truism called Moore’s Law holds that computing power will grow exponentially, as transistors get smaller. But it doesn’t apply to batteries. Apple Inc.’s latest iPhone 4S comes with eight hours of talking time—exactly as much as the original iPhone model that came out in 2007.

The battery deficit has created a market opportunity for companies like Goal Zero, of Salt Lake City. It first started making personal-size solar panels in 2007 for cellphones in Africa, but found a need among gadget addicts closer to home, says President Joe Atkin. Last year, he sold some 200,000 foldable 14-inch solar chargers. “It is about freedom,” says Mr. Atkin.

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(Published Feb 7, 2012, in The Wall Street Journal.)