From Solar to Hand-Crank: The New Age of Emergency Chargers

A few years ago, if you lost electricity due to a hurricane, blizzard, tornado, flood, or other natural disaster, you were also likely to lose access to wireless communications. With the power down, there were only a few ways to charge your cellphone once its battery ran out. During hurricane Sandy, especially in the NYC metro-area where Verizon Wireless has its Headquarters, a charged phone became nearly as important as oxygen and drinking water. 

Now, thanks to the efforts of a broad range of entrepreneurs, consumers can easily charge their phones via solar power, hand-cranks, heat, or fuel cells. And more innovation is on the way. Compared to earlier emergency chargers, the latest gadgets are higher capacity, more practical, and boast multiple functions. One new solar charger, for example, can power up to eight iPhones on a single charge. Other solar chargers are now sufficiently thin and flexible to attach to a backpack strap. The latest hand-crank chargers pack several built-in features, such as digital radios for weather alerts and LED flashlights.

Independent inventors are driving much of this innovation. The growth and proliferation of crowd-funding sites such as Kickstarter  and Indiegogo has enabled “makers” of all stripes to publicize their product ideas and raise money from the public. At least 25 emergency charger projects have launched on Kickstarter since 2011. Indiegogo has spawned even more emergency charger projects — more than 50 in all, though only some received full funding.  

Below are a few of the new methods and models available to consumers. 


Most of these new chargers are solar-powered. The standouts offer consumers faster speeds and/or greater flexibility. For example, the creators of SunJack, a solar charger recently funded through Kickstarter, bill their device as the “world’s most powerful solar charger” because it only needs five hours of sunlight to power the equivalent of eight iPhones. The California-based company says the SunJack’s lithium-polymer battery and USB port are more energy efficient than competing solar chargers.   

SunCache, another recently completed Kickstarter project, lets users choose from three different charging modes. People can use the SunCache solar panel to directly charge their gadgets; to charge AA batteries that can be used later to power up a smartphone or other device; or to charge a device and an external battery pack at the same time. This array of options should be helpful for anyone forced to rely on the sun for energy during an emergency. 


Turning a manual crank is another way to juice up a smartphone. In fact, hand-crank gadgets are becoming all-in-one preparedness devices, especially when paired with emergency radios. The latest radios from companies such as Ambient Weather and Eton can not only power up smartphones, they also have county-specific weather alerts, flashlights and SOS beacons, and are shockproof or splashproof. 


Though less known, thermoelectric energy is another emergency charging technology that is drawing interest. The PowerPot, which was introduced in 2012 and updated for 2014 lets you power your phone while boiling water for food. Users simply fill the aluminum pot with liquid, place it over a fire or propane can, and connect their devices to the USB charging cord. The pot is a practical way to convert heat into electrical power. 

Fuel Cells

Fuel cells are a still-nascent source of emergency energy but several companies are innovating here, as well. Britain’s Intelligent Energy has developed a baton-like device called Upp that employs reusable hydrogen fuel cell cartridges to power smartphones. Since the Upp doesn’t need to be charged, people can use it immediately in an emergency. Intelligent Energy says each snap-on cartridge will cost about $10 and last about a week. To reduce the hassle of exchanging cartridges, a corresponding app will tell users where they can find participating retailers. 

None of us wants to lose access to our smartphones or other wireless devices, especially during emergencies when communicating with loved ones, public safety workers, and first responders is of paramount importance. Fortunately, advances in technology and ready access to capital continue to drive progress in emergency chargers. This steady stream of inventions is making it easier for all of us to keep safe and powered up, no matter what’s on the horizon.


This piece is part of Verizon Wireless' #PowerfulTech series.Share your thought, tips and comments on Twitter using the hashtag #PowerfulTech. 

Also, check out these stories from earlier in the series: