Wind up my Cell Phone, Please!

Olga Kharif

We’ve all rewound toy chickens and mice when we were kids, which makes it a bit challenging to think of winding up as high-tech. Yet, one British company believes that turning the handle generates a legitimate type of alternative energy, along with solar and wind power. And the company, listed on the London Stock Exchange, plans to introduce a slew of chargers – for powering cell phones, boats and even cars -- into the U.S. this year.

Called Freeplay Energy, the company just received a U.S. patent on its wind-up technology in April. The idea is pretty simple: As you wind away, your mechanical energy flows directly into a battery. The company, whose original investors include General Electric (GE) Pension Fund, claims it converts 74% of human energy into power – which is amazing, considering that, say, solar panels’ efficiency hovers around 30%. With Freeplay, if you turn the handle for 45 seconds, that gives you five minutes of cell phone talk time, says Rory Stear, the outfit’s CEO. I bet that a lot of people who’ve experienced the frustration of carrying around a dead phone will go this, even if we get laughed at, which is quite a possibility.

This technology for recharging phones, available since last year, is already a hit with wireless users in Africa, which is only 22% electrified, says Stear. The company is also working with humanitarian agencies and the United Nations to provide everything from self-powered flashlights to wind-up radios to developing nations.

And, this summer, Freeplay hopes to enter the U.S. in a big way. This August, the outfit will release a special foot pump converting mechanical energy into electricity. The device should be able to restart a boat or a car. And the company is testing the use of wind-up devices to power medical instruments, says Stear.

Seeing that Freeplay is profitable and expected to more than double its sales this year, copycats are, apparently, popping up left and right.

Now, I’ll look at a wind-up mouse with a newfound respect.

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