You’d think that a conference session titled “Greener Gadgets: The Future of Consumer Technology,” would be focused on the latest environmentally-oriented cutting-edge technology to emerge from places like Silicon Valley. In fact, the take-away from the session panel was that if you’re really interested in learning how to build low-power, long-life, non-toxic devices with a small ecological footprint, the kind of places you should visit are Africa and India.
David Floyd, managing director of British company Freeplay Energy, explained why, using the example of a solar-powered radio his firm had developed for classrooms in Africa (the goal was to allow national governments to broadcast educational programs to schools over the airwaves.) Solar power was essential because so few places in Africa have access to electrical power. Other companies had approached the problem by trying to combine an off-the-shelf solar panel with an off-the-shelf radio, but the power demands of the radio, designed for the Western world where electricity is plentiful, doomed those radios to failure.
Instead, Freeplay energy designed the radio from scratch, starting with the assumption that it would only be able to tap the very limited amount of juice a solar panel can provide, with the option of an assist from a built-in hand cranked generator. The result was a solar-powered radio (pictured below) that he claims can work with only a third of the amount of light needed to power traditional designs. This was great for African schoolchildren — and also meant that Freeplay Energy had a solar powered radio that could be easily modified into something that would actually work happily as a consumer product in cloudy England.
John Ryan of PixelQi, a display company heavily involved in the XO, one laptop per child project, went on to point out that a lot of the more toxic substances used in electronics, such as hexavalent chromium, mercury and cadmium, are used as a consequence of handling the relatively high-power flows within modern electronics. Reduce the amount of power needed (an absolute must in developing countries because so little power is available), and not only do we use less electricity and extend how long we can go between recharges, but we can also use less toxic materials in the construction of computers and other devices.
In particular, Ryan pointed to the underlying design philosophy of conventional laptop screens, which is they are basically designed like TVs, where the image being displayed is constantly changing. But computers are actually used for work, which means we spend a lot of time reading or typing, which means the screen does not have to be updated dozens of times a second much of the time. By designing screens that recognize when they are not being used as a video player, power consumption can be cut dramatically. Having learnt this lesson on the XO project, Ryan hopes to develop screens for mainstream western laptops that could use as much as 90 per cent less power, which would have a huge impact for battery life, given that the display is one the biggest consumer of electricity in a lap top.