New solar cell technology could ditch batteries in gadgets for good by harvesting ambient room light

Close-up of remote control resting on unrecognizable person underneath blanket while dog rests in sunny spot at foot of bed
(Image credit: Grace Cary/Getty Images)

A new solar cell technology designed to recharge devices such as remote controls by harvesting ambient indoor light was just unveiled. 

The technology was showcased by California-based Ambient Photonics at CES 2024, with the startup also partnering with Google to incorporate the technology into a new consumer product, which it hasn't yet revealed. They plan to launch it at some point in 2024, company representatives announced at the show. 

The company is also working on a solar-powered computer mouse. None of these devices, including the unknown Google product, will require disposable batteries or need to be consciously recharged, according to the company. 

The technology in the new cells is bifacial, which means it can harvest and generate energy from both sides, which lets it generate enough energy to power home electronics. Its previous cells were only single-sided, with the rear side providing 50% additional energy on top of the 100% efficiency of the front-facing side. 

Related: Are solar panels worth it? How to save money and energy

Inspired by photosynthesis — the process by which plants convert sunlight into energy — these photovoltaic cells contain light-sensitive dye molecules that turn photons, small particles of electromagnetic radiation, into electrons, negative subatomic particles. 

This creates a charge differential that, in turn, allows electricity to flow. They work similarly to how chlorophyll, which makes plants green, creates power from photons in photosynthesis. 

“In a dye sensitized solar cell, the amount of electrical power produced depends on how effectively the photons are absorbed by the dye," Joshua Wright, vice president of engineering at Ambient Photonics, told Live Science in an email.

Wright claimed his team achieved “superior dye chemistry” for producing “unmatched power density”, with the company publishing more information in a document outlining how its technology works. Ambient's dyes are based on over 40 organic sensitizer molecules — the active component of dye sensitized solar cell (DSSC) technology — which absorb light across the entire visible electromagnetic spectrum, like those in other solar panels.

Reducing the need for batteries could cut electronic waste, as TK billions of batteries go to landfills every year. 

Although solar power technology has existed for decades, generating enough power for devices at low lighting levels has been a vexing problem. Previous attempts to create low-lighting solar cells haven't been sufficient, with Wright explaining that traditional photovoltaic innovations such as amorphous silicon cells "don’t yield sufficient power in the real-world, low-light operations conditions." 

Ambient claims its technology harvests three times more light than comparable solutions. 

"Also, the large price tag on high performance, low-light photovoltaic technologies like gallium arsenide cells has made them suitable only for space satellite and research applications, not mass-market electronics," he said.

Nicholas Fearn

Nicholas Fearn is a freelance technology and business journalist from the Welsh Valleys. With a career spanning nearly a decade, he has written for major outlets such as Forbes, Financial Times, The Guardian, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, Business Insider, and HuffPost, in addition to tech publications like Gizmodo, TechRadar, Computer Weekly, Computing and ITPro.