Battery-free cellphones: Convenient and good for the environment?

Eric Tegethoff
Washington News Service

SEATTLE — Cellphone users are excited that the prototype for a battery-free cellphone might mean they could cut the cord to their chargers in the future. But the developing technology also may be a boon for the environment.

Developed at the University of Washington, the battery-free cellphone draws power from the air by “harvesting” radio frequency signals and turning them into energy. The prototype also uses “photodiodes,” which essentially are tiny solar panels.

Vamsi Talla worked as a research associate on the project. He says the technology would help cellphones last longer.

“Because these phones don’t have batteries, then there is nothing that would actually limit the life of the phone,” he says. “So, your phone can last decades.”

University of Washington researchers used a bare-bones prototype to make their first call, consisting of only a number pad and a button that had to be pressed while speaking. But the infant technology holds a lot of promise: Their simple prototype was made from cheap, off-the-shelf components.

Talla says along with creating phones that don’t have to be tossed every few years, eliminating batteries that rely on heavy metals also would help the environment.

“You can think about the environmental impact of it as well because batteries typically contain lithium and other heavy metals, which are really toxic,” he explains. “So, if you can reduce the amount of batteries you need, we can have a positive impact on the environment.”

Talla is now chief technology officer of Jeeva Wireless, a startup that came out of the University of Washington research. He says Jeeva is working on a battery-free display, which would allow for texting and a battery-free camera.

Washington News Service is a part of the Public News Service, an independent member-supported national news service based in Boulder, Colo., that distributes public interest news and information. Support comes from grants, gifts and memberships from individuals, foundations, nonprofit organizations and businesses for social responsibility.