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No Power? No Problem: a Guide to DIY Electricity

Mobile technology has come quite a long way since the $3,995, two-pound “brick” appeared on a New York street corner in 1973. Zack Morris’s clunky – but oh so coveted – cell phone has evolved almost beyond recognition; our modern, sleek incarnations are wireless banks, portable cameras, and breaking news updates all rolled into one. And, amazingly, it fits snugly inside a pocket.

But despite these myriad advancements in mobile technology, one feature remains lamentably the same: cell phones run on batteries. And batteries must be kept charged.

Most of the time, keeping a cell phone battery charged isn’t a difficult task. But take away conventional circumstances and suddenly, the problem becomes more complex. What if there’s an extended power outage after a big storm? What if one is out of range of electricity – camping or hiking, perhaps – and there isn’t anywhere to plug in? What about mobile users in the developing world – and there are a lot of them – who must depend on problematic infrastructure? What happens then?

Finding an answer to this deceptively simple question has resulted in an incredible amount of diverse, innovative solutions. Below, we round up some of the most impressive – and unconventional – ideas from inventors around the world:

Hand Crank Generator

K-TOR's Pocket Socket Hand Crank Charger
K-TOR’s Pocket Socket Hand Crank Charger

One of the simplest solutions, a hand crank generator, works in a pinch in nearly every situation imaginable: weighing under a pound, the $60 water-bottle-sized device is easily portable for outdoor excursions or other travel. It can be stored in a drawer or dashboard for use during an emergency. The generator is easy to use and supplies enough electricity for most devices, including smartphones (up to 10 watts of electricity at 120 volts). And, best of all, it would look right at home in your homemade bomb shelter.


myFC's PowerTrekk fuel cell charger
myFC’s PowerTrekk fuel cell charger

Powertrekk, a fuel cell charger developed in Sweden, takes manual labor out of the battery-charging equation and replaces it with another kind of power: water. The fuel-cell technology uses a chemical reaction between the hydrogen in water and special electrodes and electrolytes in fuel cells to generate electricity. Adding one tablespoon of water to the device creates four watt hours of electricity. And it will only cost you… $300. But look on the bright side: the water’s free!

nPower PEG

The nPower Personal Energy Generator on the go
The nPower Personal Energy Generator on the go

The nPower PEG (Personal Energy Generator) claims to be “the world’s first human-powered charger for hand-held electronics” – it creates electricity from kinetic energy. Movement from walking, running, or biking creates a charge that can be harvested by a user’s cell phone, mp3 player, or other hand-held device. But the payoff of all that sweat is somewhat limited: 11 minutes of walking provides just one minute of talk time on an iPhone 2G. If you love to run marathons, though, the $200 PEG could be the just the gadget for you.

Pan Charger

TES NewEnergy's Pan Charger on a picnic
TES NewEnergy’s Pan Charger on a picnic

If you’re more into roasting marshmallows than running marathons, the Pan Charger might be better suited to your outdoorsy lifestyle. Developed by Japanese company TES NewEnergy in response to the devastating earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 15,000 people in March of 2011, the $300 Pan Charger is a thermo-electric cookpot that converts the heat from boiling water into electricity. Smartphones and other devices can be connected to the pot via a USB port; one iPhone can be charged in the span of three to five hours – while you enjoy a leisurely picnic lunch. And then you can upload an Instagrammed photo of your clean plate to Facebook! Win/win.

Sound Charge

The Sound Charge t-shirt
The Sound Charge t-shirt

Last, but certainly not least, Sound Charge is an option for people who couldn’t be less interested in the great outdoors or running marathons, but love a great rock concert. The prototype t-shirt converts sound waves into an electric charge, which is stored up in a small reservoir battery that connects to a mobile phone. The wearer can thrash around in a mosh pit while simultaneously charging his cell – developers estimate six watt hours of power for sound levels of around 80 decibels, or the same noise level a bustling city street. Just watch out for those flailing elbows.

For more on innovation in the tech world, check out the WaPo Labs blog’s Technology section.

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