Every single joule of energy you use ultimately comes from the sun. From the fuel that propels your car forwards to the cascades of electricity powering the screen you’re looking at and right through to the food that enables you to breathe, move and live, the energy we use and consume was initially captured by plants in photosynthesis directly from the goliath ball of fire in the sky. Solar power is the technological extension of this fact – and the uncomfortable idea that we pay for power every day when there is free energy raining down on us all through the day – it’s the future of power. Since e-cigs are the future of smoking, it was only a matter of time before solar-powered versions of them hit the market. Here’s an introduction to solar-powered e-cigs and chargers – many of which can charge your phone, iPod and other devices too!
Solar Power Basics
Solar power depends on something called the photoelectric effect, which – like so many things – was explained by Albert Einstein towards the beginning of the 20th century. Scientists had observed that when you shine light on a piece of metal, electrons are ejected from the surface of it – the beginnings of an electric current (since electricity is just a “flow” of electrons). He described how light acts like a particle – a photon – which basically “pushes” electrons up out of the piece of metal to create the current, but it wasn't until the 50s and 60s that the technology was really put into practice. By incorporating semi-conductors (the same things at the heart of all computers) and some smatterings of quantum physics, arrays of solar cells can be created which stock-pile energy in order to power pretty much anything.
USB Solar Chargers
Although you’re likely to be more used to seeing humongous panels on the top of eco-friendly houses, you can also make solar cells that are pretty damn small. In fact, there’s a pretty booming market of multi-function solar-powered USB chargers, which work on anything you charge via USB, including your e-cig and cell phone. The basic principle is that you sit the device in the sunlight to recharge – of course, it doesn't work as well if it’s cloudy out – and then use the power stored in it to power up your devices. Although the Sun is obviously the preferred source of power, they do work to a lesser degree using artificial light – so you could still charge even if you’re always vaping indoors.
They don’t leave a crater in your bank balance anymore, either, with some options available for as little as $20 which are suitable for USB-charged e-cigs. However, if you want to get something impressive, there are loads of more techy, well-designed and expensive options available, driven by the use of the technology as a portable mobile phone charger. Some stick to windows, there are options with variable voltage output, others have useful iPad-like cases which enable them to be angled to pick up maximum sunlight, and some – like the electree – take things a little too far. The electree looks like a sculpture of a bonsai tree, except that the leaves are actually solar panels. It’s undeniably cool, but the expense (not to mention the inherent lack of portability) of such designs makes the simpler options a much better idea.
There are also options which are specifically designed for e-cigs, like the solar charging case from Exhale. These offer all of the benefits of the more generic solar USB chargers in addition to having enough space to fit some batteries inside along with some bottles of e-liquid or cartridges. They still charge your phone – so you aren't losing out on functionality – but in truth, some of the more generic options (designed for iPads, cell phones and standard consumer products) are better when it comes to functionality and efficiency.
So now you’re thinking, “Why not just make an e-cig which charges itself from solar power?” And that’s why Cigtechs invented the Solarplex, a 510-threaded box-mod that charges itself via a solar panel built onto one of the large flat sides. It isn't going to win any APV beauty contests, granted, but the appeal is in the fact that you can go camping with it and not have to worry about running out of power. Other options are bound to become available – especially with the recent advances in miniscule solar cells – and solar power may even become standard on e-cigs in the future.
Actually Useful, or Just a Gimmick?
Frugal vapers might well be questioning the point of it all, after all – there’s no problem with e-cig charging now; powering your e-cigs hardly runs up your electricity bill. Three hours’ charging, drawing power at 5 V and 0.5 amps (example consumption taken from a USB eGo charger) uses 27 kilojoules, and since a kWh is 3,600 kilojoules (and costs an average of 12 cents) you would have to charge around 130 times to spend 12 cents on e-cig power (if you ignore the power consumption of your laptop). The costs would mount up a little if you consider how much you spend charging other devices too, but that isn't really the purpose of the device.
It may be something of a gimmick if you’re thinking about saving money (and with such small power consumption, e-cigs don’t really create a notable carbon footprint either), but not if you love the outdoors, want to vape all weekend long at a festival or just don’t want to worry about taking USB cables with you everywhere you go. Plus, it isn't just your e-cig that benefits. How many times has your cell phone died on you when you were hoping to phone a cab? It’s more than just a continuous supply of power for your e-cig; it’s a solution to the power needs of all your USB devices, and a pretty cool one at that.