Sunday, 6 December 2009

Solar power of the future? It’s in the bag

Danny Fortson

Roy Bedlow has the world’s most expensive man-bag: about $100m (£60m) all in. The high cost isn’t in the leather, but in a flimsy solar panel on the flap that is powerful enough to charge his BlackBerry.
G24 Innovations, the Welsh firm where Bedlow is head of marketing, has spent the past five years perfecting organic dyes that generate electric currents when exposed to light. The dye is injected into a special foil that is malleable enough to be put into fabric.
Six weeks ago G24 made its first shipment to a Hong Kong bag maker, which will integrate the panels into a range of its laptop carriers and backpacks. For Bedlow, former European head at Palm, the handset maker, the real work is only now beginning. “I have to take a science project and make it a business,” he said.
It has been a long journey. The technology was developed in 1988 by Michael Graetzel, a Swiss chemist. The problem was how to make a business out of it. Graetzel’s dye is not as efficient as traditional solar cells. The big difference, however, is that as a liquid it need not be housed in rigid panels like most other solar technologies and it works in indoor, low-light conditions.
G24 formed in 2004 and has already burnt through most of the $100m it raised from investors including Morgan Stanley, 4Rae and Renewable Capital. It acquired the global rights to Graetzel’s technology and built a state-of-the-art assembly line in Cardiff, where it injects the dyes into kilometre-long strips of foil that can be cut into any shape and size.
There remains plenty of room for improvement, though. The panel on the front of Bedlow’s bag, about half the size of an A4 sheet of paper, feeds a small battery that has a charging input. For power-hungry devices such as a BlackBerry or iPhone, it takes up to a day-and-a-half to charge fully. “The power output needs to increase and the price needs to decrease,” said Bedlow. “That’s what will move this from being a ‘nice-to-have’ to essential.”
To do that G24 needs money. The executive team splits its time between Wales and California’s Silicon Valley, where it set up a corporate headquarters last year to be closer to the region’s venture capitalists. Bedlow doesn’t expect the company to turn a profit until 2013. It needs cash to tide it over until then.
Meanwhile, big rivals are wading in. Swatch, the Swiss watch maker, plans to launch a dye-powered piece and Sony is looking at developing the technology for personal electronics.
G24 is in talks with a big computer maker interested in integrating the panels into its laptops and desktops. “We can’t power a computer at this point but we can power standby,” he said. “That’s 8% of UK power consumption.”