Apple’s Patent Application May Portend Solar iPhones

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A recently-published patent application filed by Apple Computer (Apple) is making a splash and fueling speculation that the computer and electronics giant will soon be launching solar-powered mobile devices, including a sunny version of the super-trendy iPhone. 

U.S. Patent Application Pub. No. 2008/0094025 (‘025 application) published in late April and is entitled “Solar Cells on Portable Devices.”  The ‘025 application is directed to processing systems coupled with solar cells and methods for connecting solar cells to portable devices. 

The basic idea of connecting solar cells to portable devices is probably obvious in both the colloquial and patent law sense (non-obviousness is one of the main criteria for patentability, and a combination of known elements must be non-obvious to be patentable).  With the ‘025 application, Apple seems to be betting that its solution for maintaining a consistent voltage and sufficient power output with a small number of solar cells, even when some of the cells are obstructed (e.g., because of a user holding the device), is worthy of patent protection.

The ‘025 application describes a way to arrange solar cells so that some cells will continue to function while others are blocked from sunlight.  The system involves networks of cells connected both in series (end to end so the current flows in a single path) and in parallel (the current flows through each component, providing the same voltage across all components).

In one example disclosed by the ‘025 application, two individual solar cells of a first type (“A1” and “A2”) are connected in parallel, and two individual solar cells of a second type (“B1” and “B2”) are connected in parallel.  These two pairs of cells are then connected to each other in series (i.e., A1/A2 is connected to B1/B2).  The pairs are arranged in an alternating checkerboard pattern so A1 is diagonally opposite A2 and B1 is diagonally opposite B2.  According to the patent application, this arrangement provides more consistent power output in the event of obstruction of sunlight.

No word yet on whether Apple will be launching its solar electronics, when it will do so, or which products will be getting the solar treatment.  But this is a patent application everyone will be watching.

Eric Lane Avatar

Eric Lane

Eric Lane, the founder and principal of Green Patent Law, is an intellectual property lawyer and registered U.S. patent attorney in New York and is a member of the bar in New York and California. Eric has more than two decades of experience working with wind, solar PV, CSP, biofuels, and geothermal, energy storage technologies, carbon capture and sequestration, medical devices, data communications, mechanical, chemical, internet and software.