Solar Panel Lightweight Hack

Solar Panel Hacking Project

Several months ago fellow backpacking and blogger Roman (aka LightHiker) offered up a free solar panel charger on Twitter to anyone who wanted it, all they had to do was to cover the cost of shipping. I narrowly beat Hendrik Morkel to be the first person to respond via Twitter - Ha, Hendrik :-)

I reimbursed Roman for the shipping cost (gotta love Paypal) and received the charger a few days later. Since then the charger has sat in my office starring at me and gathering dust because it was far heavier than I had originally thought it would be, much more so than I was willing to carry in my pack as a luxury item that's for sure. But beggars can't be choosers and I'm very grateful to Roman for letting me have it.

For some reason, this morning I got the urge to take another look at the solar panel to see if I could "lighten" it. This is what the charger looked like when I got it. I'm guessing it was a product sample handed out by HP at a conference or convention that Roman attended. It is necessarily big 5.5 x 7 inches (140mm x 180mm) but all of the packaging around the panel was heavy and bulky. The whole thing weighed 8.5oz.

Solar Panel Hacking Project

The enclosure is made from what looks to be thick Cordura or ballistic nylon and stitched in place around the inner solar panel. After a minute or two of carefully slicing through the stitching with my trusty Spyderco, I was able to separate the solar panel from the casing.

Solar Panel Hacking Project

There was nothing holding the solar panel to the nylon casing other than the stitching around the outside. So once I had unpicked it the panel simply slid right out.

Solar Panel Hacking Project

It's a pretty basic solar panel with a single purpose USB port hard-wired on the reverse. I was pleased to discover that the polycrystalline silicon solar cells were encased in a transparent epoxy resin material and not glass as I had feared. The panel is much more durable than I had thought.

After taking it out of the casing it weighs just 3.6oz. That's almost half the weight of a Brunton Freedom solar charger (6.6oz), but obviously it isn't as nicely packaged. I'm thinking of using some black Sugru silicone putty to cover over the USB port and afford it a little extra protection. Then I might also use a small bead of Sugru (probably orange colored) around the entire outer edge of the panel to protect it and make it a little less rough to handle. That would look pretty cool and it will add a few extra grams, but that's fine.

Solar Panel Hacking Project

I had tried the solar panel with my iPhone4 when I first received it, only to be disappointed that it didn't have enough juice/output to recharge it. In fact my iPhone4 doesn't even acknowledge that it's plugged into the charger. That was another reason why I hadn't paid much attention to it in so long.

But after hacking it to pieces and ending up with such a lightweight panel I was curious to try it again. We've had 100+ degree weather in North Carolina for the past few days, so I wondered if the blazing sun might help give the panel a little extra boost necessary to charge up my Phone?

Nope! It didn't make any difference. At this point I wasn't even sure if it was working at all or if I had buggered it up? I had my Garmin watch nearby and plugged it in to the panel.

Solar Panel Hacking Project

Success! The panel worked perfectly and my Garmin started charging as indicated by the flashing battery icon on the watch face. I also checked my work BlackBerry and that charged successfully using the panel. I'm bummed that this particular panel doesn't have enough output to power an iPhone4, but it's still useful for some of my other electronic items.

I'm not yet sure if I'll carry it with me when I go backpacking, not because of the weight, but because the only electronic device that I am likely to have with me is my iPhone, and this doesn't work with it. But at less than 4oz (estimated weight after adding some Sugru), it's still the lightest solar panel that I know of.

Do any of you use a portable solar charging device when you go backpacking? If so, what make and model do you use and what has your experience been with it?

Reader photo from Carrick:
Carrick has left some great comments below describing his MYOG solar project. He also sent me this photo which I thought I'd share. Thanks again Carrick. 

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