Solar May Power Smartwatches and Smoke Alarms, Alta Says

Alta Devices Inc., a supplier of solar cells for military applications, is in talks to provide its products for consumer electronics including mobile phones, smoke detectors and security systems.

Solar cells can power wireless devices and systems that operate remotely, Rich Kapusta, vice president of marketing for Sunnyvale, California-based Alta, said yesterday in an interview.

The market for connected devices, excluding smartphones and computers, is expected to triple to $27 billion by 2016, according to estimates from Cisco Systems Inc. Most of the major consumer-electronics companies, including Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co., are developing products for the so-called Internet of Things, and all these gadgets will need power to communicate with each other and with consumers, he said.

Alta is in talks with “all of those players,” and “has good engagements with the guys whose names you would recognize,” Kapusta said. “Products won’t show up in the marketplace on Black Friday this year, but maybe next year.” He wouldn’t identify any potential customers.

Solar cells may be incorporated into devices such as temperature and occupancy sensors, door alarms, wearable computing products and remote controls, he said.

Consumer electronics may become an important market for solar power, Scott Kessler, head of technology sector research at S&P Capital IQ in New York, said today in an interview.

“There are tremendous opportunities for mobile devices,” he said. “Inevitably you’re going to run out of power. When that happens you might not be in a position to charge your phone or your tablet.”

Solar Watches

Alta’s flexible, thin-film solar cells may be a good fit for a watch that incorporates computing functions, Kapusta said. Apple is said to be working on such a product, and has trademarked the name iWatch in countries including Japan. Samsung already offers a $299 smartwatch. Kapusta wouldn’t say whether the company will supply cells to Apple and the electronics company wouldn’t comment on potential new products.

“The challenge for solar charging would be where to put the solar cells,” Rob Stone, an analyst for Cowen & Co in Boston, said today in an interview. Ascent Solar Technologies Inc. has a line of mobile-phone cases for Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy products with thin-film solar cells to charge a built-in battery that lets the phone go longer between charging.

“There is no question that the appropriate solar technology for this form factor is some kind of thin film,” Stone said. “It’s an interesting opportunity as people get more and more dependent on portable electronics.”

Solar Costs

Adding about a watt of Alta’s solar cells to consumer devices would add $2 to $4 to the total materials cost, Alta Chief Executive Officer Christopher Norris said in an interview in January. The company expects about 80 percent of its sales this year to come from military applications including drones, and 20 percent from consumer devices.

Alta’s gallium-arsenide cells produce more power in a smaller area than competing products because they convert as much as 28.8 percent of the energy in sunlight into electricity. That’s more than the two biggest U.S. solar manufacturers, First Solar Inc., which offers cells with 18.7 percent efficiency using a different type of thin film made from cadmium telluride, and SunPower Corp.’s 24 percent, using standard polysilicon.

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