Battery-Free Cell Phones: Convenient and Good for the Environment?

The prototype for a battery-free cell phone developed at the University of Washington was built with cheap, off-the-shelf components. Photo Credit: Mark Stone/University of Washington

Eric Tegethoff
Public News Service

SEATTLE – Cell-phone users are excited that the prototype for a battery-free cell phone 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 cell phone 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 cell phones 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.