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Last week Apple introduced us to a Smart Home Energy Management System that had every tree hugging site on the planet cheering Apple on to the n-th degree. Well today's patent application from Apple should provide an encore for this audience, because Apple is seriously working on reinventing their media players to operate, for the most part, using solar cell panel technology; Panels that could cover a portion of the front or back covers of portable devices that are made from a transparent or semi-transparent material. One of the cool factors to Apple's technology is that if one or more of the solar cells are obstructed from a light source, the voltage output of the solar cells can use a technique described as first and second cell chain reactions to ensure that the device retains a constant source of power. The system works with a regular battery to ensure that in times of complete darkness the media players will still be functional. What will they think of next?



Transparent Solar Panels


Apple's patent FIGS. 1A and 1B illustrated below show simplified diagrams of an exemplary portable electronic device 100 constructed in accordance with some embodiments of the invention.




In patent point 007, Apple states that this invention could relate to methods, systems, and apparatuses for powering a portable electronic device using one or more solar cells. The portable electronic device may be an Apple iPod, iPhone or any other suitable media device. In patent point 0032 the devices capable of using solar cell technology specifically expand to include the iPod Shuffle, internet-capable devices, personal organizers, portable computing systems, any other portable electronic device, or any combination thereof. That would definitely cover the MacBook, the iPod Touch and a future iteration of a tablet computer. The patent states the obvious, that solar cells could generate electrical power in response to being exposed to light energy.


In respect to patent FIG. 1A above: because solar cells 106 can be embedded in the entire front cover of the device including the display and click wheel, at least a portion of the front cover can be made from a transparent or semi-transparent material. This can allow light to reach the solar cells so that the solar cells can generate electrical power. Although solar cells 106 and 108 are shown in FIGS. 1A and 1B as being included on the entirety of both sides of portable electronic device 100, persons skilled in the art will appreciate that solar cells can be placed on only one side of portable electronic device 100 and/or on any other portion thereof depending on, for example, the energy requirements of the device, the anticipated use of the device, the functionality of the device, the number and type of solar powered mode(s) of the device, and/or the energy output of each solar cell.


The Power Management Circuitry




Apple's patent FIG. 3 noted above shows a simplified block diagram of circuitry 300 that can comprise power management circuitry (e.g., power management circuitry 214) that could be implemented in a portable electronic device.  The Circuitry could include solar cells 302, bootstrap circuitry 304, boost circuitry 306, second stage boost circuitry 308, and battery 310.


Although all of the components in circuitry 300 may be internal to a portable electronic device, persons skilled in the art will appreciate that the various components could also be connected externally. For example, the portable electronic device could include bootstrap circuitry 304 and battery 310, but solar cells 302 boost circuitry 306, and second stage boost circuitry 308 may be external to the portable electronic device.


Battery 310 could power the portable electronic device if solar cells 302 are not activated. For example, the user may be using the portable electronic device indoors (e.g., in a dark room) or at night. Battery 310 may be any suitable type of standard rechargeable battery such as, for example, a nickel-cadmium, a lithium-ion, a nickel-metal hydride, or rechargeable alkaline battery.


Bootstrap circuitry 304 may be a programmable controller (e.g., an application-specific integrated circuit) that may be programmed to monitor various power levels in circuitry 300 and control other components in circuitry 300 (e.g., solar cells 302). For example, bootstrap circuitry 304 may monitor the charge on battery 310 and determine if battery 310 is drained. Bootstrap circuitry 304 may determine that the battery is drained, for example, if the battery is generating energy below a predetermined minimum threshold. As another example, bootstrap circuitry 304 may be capable of connecting solar cells 302 in a particular configuration.


Solar Cell: A First and Second Cell Chain



Apple's patent FIG. 4 illustrated above shows multiple solar cells. Four solar cells (e.g., solar cells 402, 404, 406, and 408) can be placed on a portable electronic device to power the device. In solar cell circuitry 500 of FIG. 5, solar cells 402 and 404 form first solar cell chain 502. In addition, solar cells 406 and 408 form second solar cell chain 504. It will be understood that although only four solar cells are shown, additional solar cells can be added to the system to form a multi-cell array.


In some cases, if one or more of the solar cells are obstructed from a light source, the voltage output of the solar cells will be diminished. In order to configure the solar cells to facilitate the generation of a constant preset voltage, bootstrap circuitry 304 can connect solar cells 402, 404, 406, and 408 such that the solar cells are electrically connected in a series/parallel configuration. In the series/parallel configuration, the solar cells can produce a constant preset voltage as long as a subset of the solar cells is operating.


Apple's patent FIGS. 6A shown below is a flowchart of an exemplary process for powering a portable electronic device using solar cells in accordance with some embodiments of the invention. 




Apple credits Michael Rosenblatt and Daniel A. Warren the inventors of patent application 20100013309, originally filed for in Q3 2008.



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