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Overview

PowerDock is a prototype solar-powered iPhone charger that was developed over three months during my sophomore year of high school. I led a team of four throughout our research & development process, with my role focusing on physical design and manufacturing, researching underlying principles, and timeline management.

1 \ The prompt

Research and develop a new tool or solution, gather data on the solution, and present the final product & results to the community at the end of the semester.

2 \ brainstorming

As a group, we knew that any product we created should address issues within our social and physical communities, and focus on large-scale change. In 2015, clean energy dominated more and more conversations, as did overall advances in technology. I believed that there was room to meaningfully explore both of these areas. After we developed a timeline, we were ready to get started.

3 \ Need-finding

My team and I began observing our community’s behaviors, and these observations soon turned to conversations about one common pattern that we immediately noticed: everyone, be it students and teachers, was constantly charging their phones. Like, a lot. When we started collecting numerical data on this phenomenon, we found that a significant portion of our audience was charging upwards of 3 times a day.

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The scope of this project wasn't really conducive to building a new phone, and safety limits put a nail in experimenting with batteries. However, we could change the way that people charged by emphasizing portability and clean energy.

4 \ Research

Colorado is renowned for the almost-constant levels of sunshine that we get during the year, which presented an opportunity to harness solar energy while encouraging people to spend more time outdoors instead of looking down at their screens. So, we set out to learn more about photovoltaics, the driving force of solar panels.

The simplest way to visualize how photovoltaics works is to think of each solar panel as a plate. On these plates are a massive number of tiny, tiny photovoltaic cells. When these cells are hit by rays from the sun, they begin to vibrate. The energy from these vibrations is then transferred to the object you are trying to power, be it a house or, in our case, a phone.

This is a massive oversimplification of the process, and if you’re interested in reading the full extent of our research, I invite you to read the compilation of five journal articles that our team wrote on the entire subject and process.

5 \ Implementation

After doing our research and crunching all the numbers necessary for our project to theoretically work, we gathered the materials necessary to make our circuit. We of course needed a solar panel, and found one on Amazon that was portable and powerful.

We also needed a rectifier to help us transform the alternating (AC) current coming from the panel into the compatible direct (DC) current for the iPhone. Other items like wiring and charging cables were easy to find either at home or through the school.

Arriving at the setup above took some work. We had to spend a few hours per day in the springtime sun not only making sure that the panel was able to provide enough power for the iPhone’s battery level to increase (and not remain stagnant), but also make sure our circuit was completed correctly so that the electrons would travel from the panel to the phone and not the other way around. [Fun fact: the only reason we knew to check for the latter issue was because it ended up happening to us.]

6 \ Data

So how well did our system perform? After multiple trials of data collection, we were able to average out our results and compare them to a few standards. Let’s look at those graphs below.

At the bottom you’ll notice a key identifying data collected from PowerDock (our specific solar panel and setup), iPhone (the readings from your in-the-box iPhone charger), and Standard (the readings an optimally performing solar panel of that size and power would be providing). When looking at current alone, you may think that our setup gave a pretty meek performance.

However, when we looked at how these numbers compared in real-world performance by checking battery percent gains, our PowerDock didn't do too shabby at all: after half an hour, our battery was at about a third of what your traditional charger gets you. When we think about how PowerDock in meant to help people spend more time outdoors and use the sun alone to power their phones, we thought this performance was great, and served as a wonderful proof-of-concept.

But we weren’t done yet.

7 \ Functional, but not enjoyable

The setup above worked, but looked more like a rudimentary contraption and less like something you’d be confident carrying out on your adventures. Since the inception of this project, I had been designing various dock form factors to address the aesthetics and improve user experience.

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The initial concepts that I drafted varied wildly in shape and size, some more organic and others more hard-edged. As we understood the size of our panel and organization of internal components, we were able to narrow these concepts down to two unique form factors.

Design #2 (nicknamed “espresso” for it’s semi-resemblance to a coffee-maker) won our little face-off for a few reasons.

  • The overall shape struck a great balance between the organic and utilitarian designs with the curved spine attaching the upper and lower levels.

  • The stacked design also provided a natural shade to the phone’s screen no matter what angle the sun was shining onto the dock.

  • The overall form would minimize the amount of material we would need to use during manufacturing, since the panel guided the size of the top level and the phone’s width guided the size of the lower level.

Finally, I began my first experience with a CAD program and modeled our design on SketchUp before sending it to one of the first 3D printers in our school district.

8 \ Showtime

I still vividly remember the day that we revealed PowerDock to an audience filled with students, teachers, and community members; that sense of nervousness and pride that hit all four of us at once was just unforgettable. We had created a great prototype that we could confidently present alongside the data to back-up our beliefs. Our project was actually so ahead of schedule during development that I got to exercise my love of filmmaking and directing to create this little introductory video to play during our Keynote.

9 \ Future

Even while making this iteration of the PowerDock, we were constantly thinking of improvements that future versions of this product just had to have.

Portability was the biggest concern as we started using the dock during testing. The size was dictated mostly by the footprint of the panel, so improvements would have to be made on that end before we could shrink our product. However, until the dock itself was redesigned to be much smaller, it just didn’t fit that “ultimate outdoor charging companion device” that we had envisioned.

Our second further development was all about efficiency, in both power and material usage. We knew that panels would inevitably become more powerful, so technical and scientific advancements would naturally help us out in that regard, but we also realized in hindsight that Design #1 might have ended up using less 3D printing filament during construction because it didn’t require that curved hinge. 3D printing software can now provide accurate material usage estimates, which would have undoubtedly helped our decision-making process.

10 \ Epilogue

As I look back on this endeavor nearly five years later, it is perhaps even more clear now that we need to be mindful of the way we consume energy and resources. Becoming less dependent on non-renewable resources should be a no-brainer. The only way that cleaner living will be possible is if we make a commitment to explore and push science forward, not shrink away from underdeveloped solutions. PowerDock is just one such exploration in a sea of innovations from so many other teams, and together we can pave the way forward to a more sustainable future.