Greenfuel – producing biofuel from smokestack emissions

algae biofuel reactor

Greenfuel Technologies creates bio-fuels or bio-diesel from the emissions of power plants and industrial facilities. The company’s system is being tested at MIT’s 20-megawatt power plant and it has an open invitation to other power plants. Its system produces raw oil stock from smokestack gases, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 40% and nitrogen oxide emissions by 86%.

The system works by passing the smokestack emssions through an algae cultivation system which captures the carbon dioxide and also break down NOx. The algae can eventually be processed into biodiesel fuel.

via alarm:clock

See also: How Algae Clean the Air (Business 2.0, October 2005), Is Algae in your future? (Boston Museum of Science)

StarSight – Solar powered street lamps with wireless access points

solar lamppost
This project seems like it could be a good fit for developing but urban settings where there is fairly high population density, a budget for deploying infrastructure, and enough community support to limit problems with vandalism or theft of the equipment.

Starsight (Starsightproject.com) is a project designed to supercharge street lighting and power in developing counties. Essentially it is a network of pylons, each with a solar panel, linked not by cables but by antennae which use wireless internet protocol.

The Starsight idea came out of the involvement of London-based sustainable development specialist the Kolam Partnership in an urban street lighting initiative in Cameroon.

Reliable street lighting can help a country to develop – a study by the Kenyan government recently found that street lighting reduced crime by 65 per cent. The benefits are even more widespread – aid workers and foreign businesses are more likely to stay on in a country if they feel secure.

One of the project partners is a Next-G, a Singapore-based wireless manufacturer which is building the pylons. If the project scales up, perhaps they can find a way to set up in-country fabrication of the poles, rather than importing them.

As an aside, solar panels are commonly seen at road intersections in Bangalore. If you look carefully at the top right of this photo, you’ll see one on the street sign pylon behind the tree branches.
IMG_1539
Links:

Public domain Soviet maps of the world

During the initial planning and survey phase of the Kuppam project a few years ago, I discovered it was nearly impossible to obtain high resolution topographic maps (or any other sort) for rural India. The government-operated Survey of India has high quality data, but it hasn’t generally made its way into the equivalent of US Geological Survey 15-minute quadrangles on paper or the DTM / DEM data sets. The best I was able to come up with was some old Soviet military maps from the 1950s.

Hadn’t thought about it for a while, but I see someone else has found out about these:

Paul sez, “Soviets mapped the entire world at various scales between 1940 and 1990.In some areas the Russian maps are still the best available maps. Amazingly, none of the maps are copyright.

BoingBoing, Soviet Military Maps of Britain

Free computers for rural (but connected) communities


Asiatotal.net, a Hong Kong-based company, is planning to distribute “iT”:

iT is a compact, ultra-simple, portable desk top computer complete with everything necessary to connect to the Internet, home entertainment devices, printer, USB card reader for reading the memory cards of digital cameras and many other USB peripherals.

It has been developed, designed and manufactured to be distributed free in order to enhance the lives of the millions of people in the world who – for economic reasons – are not connected to the Internet. A way to move them out of the digital underclass.

The device is based on Windows CE, and comes preloaded with IE6.

From the Business Standard:

This device has a conventional keyboard with 14 additional keys, 10 of which will be sponsored by firms that want to tap rural markets, like a firm selling seeds or crop insurance. By pressing the relevant “hot key”, farmers can directly access firms’ websites where product information will guide them to making the right purchase.

A major near term challenge will be the absence of an internet connection in many of the target communities. Asiatotal is explicitly not providing the networking service. This might work in places such as Kuppam, where there is already wireless broadband service, but many other places would have on-demand service only, dial up or perhaps cellular data service, which is rapidly becoming available in many rural markets.

I’m not sure about targeting seed vendors or crop insurance though. Based on my recollection of the Kuppam web traffic logs, they could probably do better with horoscopes, cricket scores, and matrimonial services…

The firm says it intends to distribute 3 million iTs across developing countries like India, China, Brazil, Mexico, and those in eastern Europe. It will be shortly rolling out these devices in Brazil.

I hope they make some progress with this. If they’re able to make the business economics and user adoption work with this device, using the 100 dollar computer instead of a Windows CE device should be a piece of cake.

(via ContentSutra and Business Standard)

Low cost, portable ultrasound probe for notebook computers

This ultrasound imaging system is designed as a peripheral to a standard notebook computer. The prototype unit has been developed by a group at the Japan National Institute of Advanced Science and Technology, working with the Hiroshima Institute of Technology.

The unit can be used in health care or beauty facilities, or even in the home, to visualize the key components of the body (muscles, bones, subcutaneous fat) and give fat and muscle measurements. It is hoped that this technology will help to prevent elderly people from being confined to their beds.

Users connect Ubiquitous Echo to their personal computers and use the included software to collect detailed information about specific parts of the body. The ultrasonic echography equipment traditionally used in medical examinations is prohibitively expensive and too large to be used by health care and beauty facilities or in the home. This new machine is small, lightweight, and inexpensive and can even be put into a bag along with a laptop computer and carried around.

No pricing estimates are stated, but it is likely to be much less expensive than standalone ultrasound systems, in addition to being much more portable.

This might be a good addition to a mobile health unit or a field health center.

A newly created business called Global Health will work to bring it to market.

Links:

via Medgadget

Mini windmills for powering very small devices


There are many applications for remote sensors and other small electronic devices in remote locations without access to the electrical grid, and where batteries may be unsuitable. A group from the University of Texas, Arlington has built a miniature windmill is 10cm (a little less than 4 inches) in diameter and can provide a power output of 7.5 milliwatts in a breeze of 16 km/hour (10 mph).

The novel aspect of this design is in its use of piezoelectric crystals rather than a conventional generator. Piezo crystals generate a voltage when they are deformed, and are commonly found in cigarette lighters and barbeque ignitions. This piezoelectric windmill brushes a series of cymbal-shaped transducers as it rotates to generate electricity.

A conventional generator that used a 10-centimetre turbine would convert only 1% of the available wind energy directly into electricity. A piezoelectric generator ups that to 18%, which is comparable to the average efficiency of the best large-scale windmills, says Priya.

Details are published in

  • Energy Harvesting Using a Piezoelectric ‘‘Cymbal’’ Transducer in Dynamic Environment,
    Hyeoung Woo Kim, Amit Batra, Shashank Priay, Kenji Uchino, Douglas Markley,
    Robert E. Newnham and Heath F. Hofmann (PDF)
  • Piezoelectric Windmill: A Novel Solution to Remote Sensing Shashank Priya, Chih-Ta Chen, Darren Fye and Jeff Zahnd (PDF)
  • (via Nature)

    Notes on the 100 dollar computer for rural education


    Ethan Zuckerman had an opportunity to visit Nicholas Negroponte and got a good look at the mockup of the proposed $100 notebook computer for use in rural and developing education projects. This is a work in progress, but seems to have some substance to it as well.

    While the actual prototype is being actively banged on (in preparation for a live, but tethered, demo at WSIS on November 16th), Negroponte keeps a cardboard mockup of the machine on the conference table in his office. It’s a clever little thing – I had a hard time putting it down after picking it up.

    There often tends to be a focus on the technology aspects of these low-cost “IT-for-the-people” projects, partly because it’s hard, but also because it’s a lot easier to address than the broader social, economic, and policy issues that go with their intended use. I was glad to see some questions about how they thought the overall program was actually going to work in the field:

    Scale is clearly a major part of what will make the laptop succeed or fail – the laptop won’t be produced unless at least five countries sign up at a million laptops each. With an initial production run of 5 to 10 million laptops, the price is likely to be between $130 and $150 per unit, not including any distribution costs, marketing, or any digital content that comes pre-installed on the box. As the project scales up, the $100 per box target comes into sight.

    The laptop is not “for sale” – it’s going to be available for students only, and will be distributed through the same channels that school books and uniforms are. The laptops will be the property of children, not of the school. Colin Maclay, a Berkman colleague who’d joined me for the visit, pointed out that in many countries, school books and uniforms are sold by (highly profitable) local businesses, and that losing a book contract might be a major blow for local employers.

    While Negroponte has some general solutions to the interesting problems around distribution and usage, I got the sense that there hasn’t been as much detailed thinking about the on-the-ground challenges as there has been about the physical and software design of the machine.

    It looks like they’ll end up with some interesting hardware and software before too long, but it’s going to take longer to figure out how to put the concept into practice. Ethan comes away with a generally positive impression about the project, and is looking into collecting comments and suggestions from existing rural development programs as input to Negroponte’s team:

    On the third and fourth fronts of the project – the marketing, distribution and maintenance of these devices and their connection to the Internet, and their use in the classroom – I think there’s a lot of unanswered questions and I think the global community of folks interested in IT in education, especially in IT in the developing world, could assist Negroponte and team with their thinking.

    Specifically, I think it would be great for the OLPC team to have a set of requirements and suggestions for nations participating in the program on how to distribute, link, support and teach with the laptops. It sounds like Negroponte would like to make it a requirement that every student in a classroom has a laptop. Should it be a requirement that schools implementing laptops have internet connectivity? Can this connectivity be used the way it is in the SchoolNet Namibia project, to let schools become ISPs, using revenue to subsidize the net connection and, perhaps, the laptops? Will businesses repair the laptops? Or will students do it informally, or start their own businesses?

    Colin and I are talking about soliciting suggestions on the distribution and use questions surrounding the One Laptop Per Child project and compiling them into an advisory paper for Negroponte and crew. (If you’ve got questions or suggestions, posting them on this blog is a great way to start a discussion…)

    It will be interesting to see whether this gets useful enough to get beyond the concept demo stage. Although I love the vision, it may be possible to do just as much good within a few years with whatever cell phones turn into by then. It’s hard to make a low volume product inexpensive, and high volume production makes ridiculously complicated technology dirt cheap.

    Link: One Laptop Per Child – a preview, and a request for help
    See also: Six Low Cost Computers for Rural ICT, discussion at Slashdot

    Six Low Cost Computers for Rural ICT


    CNET has put together a photo roundup of several low cost computing projects from the past few years:

    • The Popular PC initiative from Brazil in 2001 was intended to cost around $250, but ended up around $600.
    • The Mobilis Wireless laptop from Indian technology firm Encore Software features a 7.4-inch LCD screen and six-hour battery life. It costs about 15,000 rupees, or about $277.
    • The Mobilis desktop is powered by Intel’s XScale PXA255 200/400MHz processor and has 128MB of SDRAM. It comes with a carrying case that hides a full-size, roll-up keyboard and opens up as a desktop stand. Its price tag is 10,000 rupees, or $230.
    • MIT Media Lab have a plan for getting $100 laptops in the hands of millions of people around the world. One notable feature of their prototype is a hand crank for providing power in places where electricity is undependable or unavailable.
    • The Personal Internet Communicator from Advanced Micro Devices features Microsoft software, including Internet Explorer, the Windows Media Player and a version of Windows. The device is sold through Internet service providers, which will set the local price; it was listed at $185 without a monitor when it debuted.
    • The Amida Simputer is a product of the Indian companies Bharat Electronics and PicoPeta Simputers. It runs Linux, uses a stylus, and has a 206MHz processor, 64MB of RAM and two USB ports.

    Skybuilt Power – Hybrid Wind-Solar in a Shipping Container


    Check out the Skybuilt MPS (Mobile Power System). These transportable (not exactly “portable”) power systems fit inside a standard shipping container, which means it can be moved using standard rail, ship, and trucking systems. It can also be dropped by parachute. Power output depends on the configuration, but ranges from 1KW up to 50+ KW. It looks like their basic configuration uses wind and solar power, the higher power systems would probably require fuel-powered (diesel or gas) generators.

    From the Skybuilt web site:

    The MPS is a complete power station in a standard shipping container. It can be transported by truck, train, ship or plane.

    At the site, you can deploy solar panels or wind turbines in just a few hours, for self-generated power. Or, use diesel, propane, natural gas or gasoline-powered generators.

    The interior of the MPS can be used for anything—air-conditioned office space, telecommunications, medical center, emergency operations/command center or storage.

    It reminds me of the shipping containers used for buildng rural telecenters in the LINCOS program. Also some prototype mobile command centers at the Future Battle Lab back in the late 80′s, which were containers stuffed full of computers and electronic equipment in shock mounts that could be dropped out of a C-130 and unfolded into a working field command post.

    Looks expensive, but would be great for setting up a remote facility somewhere in a hurry.

    via alarm:clock

    Voltage Stabilizers and Hidden Costs of Rural ICT

    Came across a couple of posts which prompted me to dig up some of my backlog of material from the Kuppam program.
    Voltage Stabilizers at Kuppam i-Community Office
    Voltage stabilizers are uncommon and almost unknown in the US, but in India, voltage stabilizers are household equipment. Although the electrical service is nominally 240 VAC, in many rural areas the grid is underpowered, with priority given to agricultural users. This leads to scheduled power outages and wildly varying line voltages. While it is possible to run computers and other IT equipment directly from the AC line, this commonly leads to rapid equipment failure due to repeated undervoltage and overvoltage conditions.

    Solar Panel Array at Kuppam i-Community Office

    The Kuppam i-Community program office is equipped with rooftop solar panels, diesel generator backup, and a voltage stablizer system. This site houses a computer training center, network servers, wired and wireless network routers, and various desktop computers for staff use. There are classes and activities there throughout the day, and the servers support network traffic from the entire region, so there is a premium on keeping the facility running as much as possible.

    Diesel Generator at Kuppam i-Community Office

    Although the cost of the IT equipment continues to decline rapidly, the cost of power systems has remained fairly constant. Fortunately, the general trend is for lower power consumption devices in the developed markes, which leads to trickle-down availability for the developing markets.

    While most rural IT installations will not be as elaborate as this one, the indirect cost of providing power is an important consideration in building and sustaining information utilities for rural developing areas.

    A sarcastic look at stabilizers sales boosting India’s GDP

    But think some more: why do we need stabilizers in the first place? Because the voltage of the electricity that’s supplied to us fluctuates wildly. That happens because of inefficiencies in the generation and transmission of electricity. In India, we are so used to these fluctuations that we don’t even think they are abnormal: we simply buy stabilizers and use them like any other consumer product. Hell, they are just another consumer product.

    We likely also don’t think, as we buy stabilizers, that we are pumping up the GDP of the country, which we are. But if we did think of that, we might find a small perversity here. Since we tolerate inefficiency in one part of our economy — the generation of electricity — we need devices whose production and purchase shore up another part of our economy.

    One person’s recollection of life with stabilizers When Stabilizers Don’t Suffice

    Around 1988, what we had was farm that needed lots of power, a tube-well that needed lots of power, and a house that needed a little power. We also had an authorized three-phase line, which used to supply some electricity everyday. It was another matter that for the few hours a day that we had it, we needed an ammeter to figure out whether we had power or not. When the rest of the city was moaning about power cuts, we felt blessed to have any power. We also had local generators, that could run for nine or ten hours, producing electricity at four times the cost, and consuming precious diesel, before requiring a mechanic, but those were needed to run the farm. Get us our daily bread, butter and cup of water.

    See also: Ethan Zuckerman’s post from PopTech on Negroponte and the $100 Laptop

    RFID and retinal scans for cattle

    One of the applications investigated for the Kuppam i-Community program was using RFID or other tagging system for tracking cattle. Much of the farming there is in small herds, so they don’t typically have a large animal management issue, but it turns out that cattle are commonly used as collateral for securing small loans from the bank. There are a number of problems with the same animal being used as collateral for multiple loans, or being declared lost, missing, or deceased.

    from BoingBoing:

    New Mexico State University researchers are testing a retinal scanner and radio frequency identification (RFID) tag system for cattle. Part of the USDA’s planned National Animal Identification System, the technology could help identify and keep tabs on animals that may have been in contact with diseased livestock.

    Wikipedia in Telegu and Kannada

    A note for my friends working on Telegu and Kannada local language projects for rural development projects in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, India.

    From the August 2005 Wikipedia News:

    The Kannada Wikipedia has reached 1,000 articles.

    The Telegu Wikipedia has reached 1,000 articles

    One of the reasons we selected Mediawiki for use in the Kuppam i-Community program was its strong support for local language content and localization. It would be great to see some of the local language content in the Kuppam wiki make its way into the Telegu Wikipedia.

    There are other local language Wikipedia projects for Sanskrit, Hindi, Tamil, Gujarathi, Marathi, Kashmiri, and Urdu.

    Word of Blog

    Word of Blog:

    Word of Blog is a new and free service that helps you spread the word about things you like, events you care about and worthy causes you want to support.

    Bloggers: You can pick and choose any of the ads appearing on this site and display them into your blog or website. Simply copy the HTML code appearing below the ad and paste it where you wish it to appear. The ads have been formatted to fit into most blog columns.

    Organizations: If you want to post an ad on this site so that bloggers can start spreading the “word of blog” about you, please go to the “Submit Ad” section.

    This site provides a clearinghouse for non-profit organizations to post their ads for use by bloggers and web site publishers that would like to contribute their support.

    It appears to be just getting started. The organizations listed so far include mainstream NGOs such as Red Cross, Grameen Foundation, CARE and United Way, along with assorted political groups.

    There’s nothing prohibiting commercial use, though, so it may be swamped with commercial placements before too long. There are already ads for free breast implants, NeoPets, and other sites that just seem to be looking for visibility. Nothing wrong with that, but most bloggers and publishers aren’t likely to place free ads for a commercial site.

    Power Generating Backpack


    A group at University of Pennsylvania has come up with the “Suspended Load Backpack”, intended to capture electrical power as a side effect of human walking movements while carrying a backpack.

    Their project was aimed towards military applications in which soldiers routinely carry 80 pounds of equipment, including up to 20 pounds of spare batteries. They claim that an 80 pound suspended load backpack can generate around 7.4 watts while moving at “a steady clip”. They also tested with smaller loads, presumably with reduced power output.

    For comparison, a typical pack of 4 rechargable NiMH AA batteries might put out 1800mAH, or a total power capacity of around 8-9 watt-hours. The 80 pound test load reported in the UPenn press release is much heavier than most people would be willing to carry at all, let alone while traveling at a “steady clip”, but even a lower power output of 3 to 4 watts would be adequate for powering and/or charging small devices.

    I wonder how the backpack actually performs as a backpack. The frame suspension and generator look a bit heavy already, and it sounds like the load moves up and down a couple of inches, which might be ok or might be enough to throw off your stride.

    via BoingBoing, CNN

    See also: Solar Power Backpack, Solar Backpack Wireless Hotspot

    Update 09-24-2005 10:15 PDT: Article at National Geographic, article with video at MSNBC

    Homemade $800 Endoscope


    Obviously, there are sterilization and reliability issues that arise from using commodity webcams and PCs as endoscopes, but this is a creative way of bringing the capabilities to a resource poor community.

    Dr. Nguyen Phuoc Huy, a doctor working in the poor rural area around the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, has used some cheap parts, a PC, and some mad DIY skills to make a homemade endoscope — a device that normally costs upwards of $30,000.

    Endoscopy is a minimally invasive diagnostic procedure used to evaluate the interior surfaces of an organ by inserting a small scope in the body. Through the scope, doctors are able to see lesions.

    “The adaptor costs almost nothing because it is simply a system of lens linked to a webcam costing just about $30.

    “In total I had to buy only the scope, which is about $800,” Dr Huy told the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

    via Engadget and the BBC

    DIY UV Water Treatment System


    Obtaining clean drinking water can be a major problem in many parts of the world. UV disinfection systems can work well if power is available, either from the grid or from locally generated power. This particular project has conducted some field trials in Mexico, with good results. The primary contaminant in the wells was organic, mostly fecal matter, not mineral or chemical contaminants.

    The UV-Tube Project is part of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) at University of California at Berkeley. The project focuses on improving water quality for people in developing areas where other water treatment methods are not applied consistently because of their cost, inconvenience, complexity, or energy requirements. The goal of the UV-Tube Project is to design and promote the UV-Tube—an affordable, simple, and easy to use household water disinfection device that uses ultraviolet (UV-C) light to inactivate pathogens. UV-Tubes can be built from materials available in developing areas and thus can be disseminated easily through community workshops hosted by local non-governmental organizations or sold by small-scale entrepreneurs

    The home-built system costs around $41, plus $4 per month in operating costs, compared with $300 and $26 per month for a commercial UV water disinfection system.

    UV Disinfection Basics (from the UV-Tube project site)

    via Engadget and News.com

    United Villages proposes Rural Wireless Broadband in India

    Now that the 2.4GHz spectrum is approved for unlicensed outdoor use in India, a number of projects based on WiFi, 802.11, and related commodity wireless data networking technologies are emerging.

    The Kuppam i-Community program in Andhra Pradesh, which I was involved with, also has a network based on 2.4GHz wireless radios. At the time we had to get experimental licenses, after many meetings and much paperwork, because the 2.4GHz band wasn’t approved for outdoor use in 2002 when the project was started.

    From Times Of India (via ContentSutra):

    Rural India has now some serious chances to go Wi-Fi, and that can be for as cheap as Rs 50 per person a year. United Villages Inc (UV), a US-based low-cost internet service provider, has asked the government for permission (foreign direct investment or FDI) to set up base in India. It will provide rural WiFi broadband, which has the potential to reach out to about 30 crore people living in the villages.

    UV has developed a communication technology that provides internet access using mobile vehicles that connect to already set up hubs. As the vehicles drive through rural areas, wireless communication equipment within them automatically exchange data with access devices in each village. This unique low-cost communication concept for the developing countries is often called “internet-on-wheels”.

    Using UV’s mobile internet technology, acronymed VAN (Village Area Network), people in the rural area can send and receive email and voicemail, and can also browse through cached information from the web and local intranets, the company said in its FIPB application.

    Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, is one of the investors in United Villages.

    See also: Cantennas deployed in Kuppam

    Merry-go-round and see-saw powered water pumps

    A couple of interesting rural technology nuggets on BoingBoing:

    From the PlayPump web site:

    The Play-Pump is capable of producing 1400 litres per hour at 16 rpm from a depth of 40m, and is effective up to a depth of 100m. A typical hand pump installation cannot compete with this delivery rate, even with substantial effort.

    The Playpumps are specifically designed and patented roundabouts (1) that drive conventional borehole pumps (2), while entertaining children. The revolutionary pump design converts rotational movement to reciprocating linear movement by a driving mechanism consisting of only two working parts.

    To date OVER SIX HUNDRED installations have been completed, a large percentage of these installations are at primary schools. A partnership has been formed with the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry; Minister Buyelwa Sonjica has been vocal in her support and encouragement for the continued installation of this system in rural Africa.

    Another link from the same post highlights the Gaviota eco-community project in Colombia, South America:

    A techno-tour of the llanos shows how Gaviotas has revolutionized life here. The most significant invention is a simple hand pump capable of tapping aquifers six times deeper than conventional models, but requiring so little effort that children can operate it. In normal pumps a heavy piston must be raised and lowered inside a pipe. Gaviotas engineers realized they could do the reverse; leave the piston stationary and lift an outer sleeve of lightweight, inexpensive PVC tubing instead.

    In the open-air Gaviotas preschool, the children’s see-saw is actually a pump in disguise. As they rise and descend, water gushes from a vertical pipe into an open cement tank. Over the years Gaviotas technicians have installed these in thousands of school yards, using kid power to provide villages with clean water.

    Solar backpack wireless hotspot

    wireless hotspot in a solar power backpack
    Here’s a wireless hotspot based on the Voltaic solar backpack: article link (Popular Science), blog link (Mike Outmesguine)

    What if you could marry the short-range power of Wi-Fi with the huge coverage areas of high-speed cellular services such as EV-DO to create a portable hotspot?

    Parts List
    • Junxion Box wireless gateway $700; junxionbox.com
    • Verizon Wireless EV-DO PCMCIA card $100; verizonwireless.com
    • Voltaic Systems solar-charging backpack $230; voltaicsystems.com

    Solar power backpack, briefcase

    Voltaic solar backpack
    The Voltaic Backpack is a little pricey (US$229), but would be just the thing for putting together a field survey kit for building rural wireless networks, disaster assessment (e.g. post-tsunami or earthquake), or other off-grid surveying applications. It provides a small set of solar panels mounted onto a backpack, which can generate power while you’re wearing it. The panels have a peak output of 4 watts, and charge a 2200mAh battery, which isn’t enough to run a notebook computer, but is enough to keep a GPS and cell phone, PDA, or camera running from the panel, and is probably enough to run a carefully chosen wireless access point as well.

    There are several different backpack sizes available from Voltaic, as well as a messenger bag, but the solar panels and battery charging systems are identical for all models.

    SolarMAX 28 watt solar briefcase 
    For portable-but-not-quite-mobile applications, the SolarMAX 28 watt solar briefcase from Sunshine Solar actually does put out enough power to run a notebook computer (my IBM T42p draws around 15 watts on batteries, with the display at medium brightness and with wireless and disk access going). It’s even more expensive though (UK 199, roughly US$350), not including batteries.

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