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Building a Solar Powered Computer

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April 8, 2007 11:58:05 PM

With all the talk of "doing our bit to save the climate", I am thinking of building a solar powered computer that would be used exclusively for email and internet access (thereby keeping my work PC offline and free from phishers, spyware, etc). I live in Perth, Australia with lots and lots of sunshine!

So does anyone have an idea as to what components you would use for this computer? Obviously it needs to keep power consumption to a minimum. The basic components would be a motherboard, small amount of RAM, flash memory (instead of a hard drive?), and a low power CPU.

It would probably run Lunix, and have a 40W LCD screen attached. I'd probably look at running it off 80W solar panels (probably have to use at least two, but maybe three?), and setup battery backup for overnight use.

Thus has anyone done this, or have suggestions on what components to consider?

Thanks.
April 9, 2007 12:43:34 AM

I think I'd start off with a laptop...
April 9, 2007 12:49:28 AM

yup,we live in a modern world,imagine that...25amp solar pad,regulator,2 batts and a laptop :D  :D  :D  .
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April 9, 2007 1:23:19 AM

This (Sept 2002 article) abstract from Sky & Telescope describes a solar powered amateur astronomy observatory: Link.

I do not have my copy with me currently but I recall a nice list of sourced components included. The power usage was approximately 30 amp hours (for an observing run around 10 hours). It was a good article and should be helpful for your project.

Also, a desktop may be worthwhile for cost outside the U.S. In addition, I have heard about 35 watt AMD cpus being relatively available around indonesia and vicinity, which looks very attractive for low power requirements. (35 watt AMD cpus in the U.S. seem non-existent)
April 9, 2007 4:20:12 AM

Just buy an energy star?
April 9, 2007 5:05:31 AM

Go for the laptop as homie suggested. Low-wattage is your goal right, a lot lower than desktop.
April 9, 2007 6:23:31 AM

Another option is to investigate the MiniITX side of things. Not exactly speedy but should be OK for the task. Pretty sure I've heard of them being used in cars as well so adapting to 12V should be easy.

There are one or two boards that can take a mobile pentium cpu as well which is reasonably frugal - but there again if you're going along that route a cheap laptop may be just as cheap and easy.
April 9, 2007 6:50:37 AM

I was looking into this a few months ago, and was looking at mini-ITX motherboards and single board computers. There are interesting solutions, but they do want money for anything small. The major advantage to the low power stuff I was looking at is that it can be passively cooled which was a big interest as I was mostly looking at audio recording in remote locations. I had to shelve it until I could save up more money and complete some other projects first, but I still want to build at least one of these someday. Intel just released some ULV 10 watt core 2 duo's that run just over 1GHz, but I don't have the link handy, although some VIA chips would probably do fine as well. A laptop is certainly an option, though for the great outdoors or cabin use I think one could build a much more rugged mini-ITX box that would come in still cheaper than a toughbook,for example.
I never found much on low-power displays, so I think that part of it is just determined by screen area and brightness, though there may be more info that I just never stumbled across. I also was considering those LCD screens made for vehicles, but never got my hands on one to see how they'd fare with text, though I suspect it'd be a rare 7" screen that would be legible enough, even for audio recording work, but then again, it has been a few months since I was looking, and anything could have happened since then.
If you'd like to do some investigating, just do some googling of mini-itx or SBC (single board computers) and see what is available-there are some very small enclosures that are built for the low power stuff that act as heatsinks, and some are used for military/aviation and are very rugged and shielded in case you plan to have yourself a pc in some post-apocalyptic scenarios or feel the need to parachute into extreme climates/locations.
I wish you luck if you go the build it yourself route, and please post your progress in that regard, I'd enjoy the information myself.
April 9, 2007 7:23:17 AM

Might be interested in this one$100 PC
One idea is
Quote:
The proposed laptops will run on the linux operating system, and will be rugged, wireless enabled, and have full color screens. MIT are hoping to power the notebooks using an alternative power source such as solar or wind up. Current specs are: 500MHz processor, and 1GB hard drive.
April 9, 2007 9:42:16 AM

What you need depends on what you mean by 'internet access'. If you're willing to forgo some of the more CPU intensive parts of the internet like YouTube videos and Flash animations you could go right back to Pentium 1.

You're not playing games and not encoding video, so you've no need to fork out for anything new CPU wise (and by using older equipment you're being environmentally friendly by recycling something that might otherwise go to landfill, along with all the toxic chemicals inside it). Mini ITX and it's VIA CPUs will use a lot less power than any fancy low power versions of modern CPUs. Even if they can match the power consumption of the CPU, there's still the power needed for the memory and chipset (and a lot more money to spend to get a few seconds cut off how long it takes to do the things you'll be doing).

I work as part of a solar powered cinema, so I have to use the lowest powered computer I can that'll do the job (and I'm in the UK, so we don't get much sun). My VIA M10000 can play back DVDs and display anything the internet has to offer at a good quality, and probably costs a lot less for the whole system than a ULV Core 2 CPU would by itself.

I don't actually use it any more as the external monitor, keyboard and mouse push up the power usage, and it isn't quite good enough to decode high compression video codecs like the new DivX codecs without the odd pause. I've got a 12" G3 iBook that does the same job better, and is far more convenient to lug around. The power supply for the thing says 24V 1.875A, so that's a maximum of 45W, which allows for the CPU running at full load, the HDD and CD being accessed, the screen at full brightness, the speakers playing, and the battery charging all at once, so average power consumption is a lot less. If I can work out the wierd connection from the power supply there's the benefit of being able to hook it up directly to a 24V battery supply, so I save the power lost in changing voltages with an inverter then the PSU. If I wanted I could run PPC linux on it. I have done in the past but OSX is all I need for the job, and is easier for other people to use.
April 9, 2007 3:06:49 PM

Great information. I've never heard of a solar powered cinema before - congrats on some serious innovation there. The only problem for me would be that I'd have to buy a lot of new software, unless I run Linux and hope everything would run under WINE. I hope your info helps the OP, but it sure has me thinking of picking up a used laptop model like yours, as I will be spending a lot of time in a rainforest and will probably get less sun than even England.
June 22, 2009 11:31:49 PM

If you can afford to spend extra 600 euros, then forget the power hungry display and buy video goggles with VGA resolution (800x600). They can run several hours on AA batteries.
That is you would have a separate power source for your mega large virtual screen.
Just take a spare set of batteries and a recharger. The only drawback is that you wouldn't be able to see the keyboard but you probably can type without looking anyway, if you have worked long time with computers. I have learnt it inadvertently, I just know which key is where.
!