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Apple Seeks Patent on Solar Powered iPod and iPhone

Written by Gene Quinn
Patent Attorney & Founder of IPWatchdog, Inc.
Principal Lecturer, PLI Patent Bar Review Course
Posted: January 21, 2010 @ 6:04 pm

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Apple, Inc., the tech giant that has revolutionized how we listen to music and the functionality of a cell phone, is now seeking to expand its extremely popular iPod and iPhone products into greener pastures. Specifically, in a US Patent Application No. 20100013309, which published earlier today, Apple is seeking a patent on a solar powered electronic device, such as an iPod or iPhone.

Every week Apple obtains patents and every week more pending patent applications are published where Apple is the assignee (i.e., owner). Apple aggressively pursues patent protection because quite frankly patents make good business sense. There is a reason that the iPod and iPhone dominate the market, and other alleged substitutes lag far behind. It is because Apple has a well developed and ever expanding patent portfolio that protects these core products and prevents competitors from getting too close.

Returning to the Apple patent application in question, the application explains that portable electronic devices, such as cellular telephones, media players and hybrid devices that combine telephone and media playing functionality are known to be powered by rechargeable batteries such as nickel-cadmium, lithium-ion, nickel-metal hydride, and rechargeable alkaline batteries. Such devices using these rechargeable batteries allow for the device to be recharged by plugging into the wall using conventional alternating current (AC). Alternatively, they can be recharged by plugging the device into another electronic device, such as a computer, via a USB connection. While these recharging methods work and are standard, at times there is no outlet or computer available, which means that the device may run down and not be able to be charged. While not mentioned in the patent itself, many news reporters have iPhones that allow them to take video and they charge and recharge their phones multiple times throughout the day, which can be tricky in some settings.

The patent application goes on to explain that some devices try and use solar cells to power the device, but because of the small size of these portable electronic devices the number of solar cells that can be placed on the device is limited. What this means is that the voltage generated by the solar cells may only be enough to power less energy demanding devices. Thus, what is needed is a way to use solar power without compromising to the point where the device loses its appeal because it is too big and bulky. Low and behold, the patent application explains that is exactly what Apple has come up with. Surprise, surprise!

According to Apple the invention disclosed in the patent application can relate to methods, systems, and apparatuses for powering a portable electronic device, such as an iPod, iPhone or other similar devices, using one or more solar cells.  In certain versions of the invention boost circuitry powered by a battery and/or the solar cells can regulate the power generated by the solar cells. The boosted power can then be used to power other components of the portable electronic device. In other versions the portable electronic devices can include what are referred to as “bootstrap circuitry,” which can monitor the state of the battery. If the battery is not drained (e.g., battery is generating energy above a predetermined minimum threshold), the circuitry can connect the solar cells in a series/parallel configuration, which can allow the solar cells to generate a constant preset voltage as long as a subset of the solar cells is operating. This configuration may thus provide protection by allowing the solar cells to continue powering the portable electronic device even if the solar cells are partially obstructed.

In the event that the battery is drained (e.g., battery is generating energy below a predetermined minimum threshold), the boost circuitry can not be powered by the battery. In such circumstances, the invention can connect the solar cells in a series configuration that facilitates the generation of a startup voltage sufficient to power the portable electronic device. In some cases, the solar cells can also be used to directly power the boost circuitry when the solar cells are connected in the series configuration. As a result, the boost circuitry can continue to regulate the power generated by the solar cells even when the battery is drained.

As shown in FIGS. 1A and 1B (see above), solar cells 106 and 108 can be placed on the front and back sides of portable electronic device 100, respectively. Each solar cell can be an integrated component, external device, or any part of a component of device, which is capable of converting light energy into electric energy. As shown in FIG. 1A, because solar cells 106 can be embedded in the entire front cover of the device (including where display component 102 and user input component 104 are located), 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. In addition, if the solar cells are placed behind or within display component 102 and user input component 104, the components can also be transparent or semi-transparent to allow light to reach the solar cells.

Shown to the left are flow FIGS. 6A and 6B, which I spliced together to show as one flowchart. 6A is everything before the “A” pentagon and then 6B picks up with the “A” pentagon.  This flowchart will no doubt be ridiculed by some because it is so basic and general, but whenever you have an invention that relates to a method and particularly when there is an electrical invention or software, flowcharts are essential.  If you cannot create a flowchart then you are not yet ready to write a patent application.  Once a flowchart, or preferably a series of flowcharts are available you have a completed invention and are ready to write it up and file a patent application.  A flowchart that provides paths and doubles back visually explains how the invention works.  These flow charts show how the invention works on a conceptual level, and were appropriately included.  No doubt additional flowcharts could have been included that described the how things work in more detail.

I am a big fan of flowcharts and when I work with inventors I want to see them.  Having an overarching flow chart is great, and then a series of more specific flowcharts that blow out and further explain each box add substantially to the disclosure.  It also helps demonstrate that you have a completed invention and have thought through the various contingencies.  Flowcharts need to be considered to be essential.  I say this not for the patent professionals reading, but for inventors.  So often I hear that there are no flowcharts and they are unnecessary.  Well, they are necessary and if you don’t have them then you really haven’t worked through everything and probably don’t have a completed invention.  When I was learning computer engineering we were required to write flowcharts, and that seems to be increasingly a lost art, at least in computer science classes.  The goal of any patent application is to create a design document and describe the invention so that others can make it and use it, which is in fact required by law.  So without having an omnibus view of the overall invention that can be described in a simple flowchart and without a series of flowcharts that describe the particulars, you have not yet crossed over the idea/invention threshold.

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Posted in: Apple, Companies We Follow, Gene Quinn, Green Technology, IP News, Articles, Patents, Technology & Innovation

About the Author

is a Patent Attorney and the founder of the popular blog, which has for three of the last four years (i.e., 2010, 2012 and 2103) been recognized as the top intellectual property blog by the American Bar Association. He is also a principal lecturer in the PLI Patent Bar Review Course. As an electrical engineer with a computer engineering focus his specialty is electronic and computer devices, Internet applications, software and business methods.


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  6. Awesome new patent from Apple! Transparent solar panels for portable devices will radically change the way we power portable electronics. Leaving your ipod in on a windowsill or wearing it in plain sight: it will be easy to take advantage of the solar panels!
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  10. I feel this is a wonderful idea. The technology itself could be used in so many various types of electronic devices, it’s astounding. I dislike having to always carry around my iPod charger, my cell phone charger, not mention having one for the car and one for the home and office. This would easily cut down on all of that.

    I wouldn’t suggest leaving it in the window sill as Casey Verdant suggests as someone might see it and decide to take it, not to mention the fact that increases in temperature usually don;t bode well for electronic devices.

  11. Sounds Great.

  12. Solar Energy is one of the best sources of clean and green electricity. I think that we should build more efficient solar thermal power plants and solar cells. frequently. *

  13. Apple…always trying to inovate.Say what you will about the prices but they are the coolest company arround