With Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone 6 just unveiled, Wall Street is anticipating record-shattering sales. For example, analyst T. Michael Walkley, working for research firm Canaccord, believes that the highly anticipated, larger screened (4.7 inch and 5.5 inch) iPhones will allow Apple to maintain its high gross margins and grow overall gross profits. This is because Apple is rumored to have ordered 68 million iPhones ahead of the launch, according to MacRumors. This is double the amount the company ordered prior to the launch of the iPhone 5, which saw the screen size grow from 3.5 inches to 4 inches and saw the number of pre-orders in the first 24 hours double from 1 million (for the iPhone 4S) to 2 million.
While a larger screen size is sure to help the iPhone 6 become the best selling phone of all time (a title currently held by the iPhone 5S) and garner rave reviews, critics will likely argue that Apple has lost its innovative touch.
This article will explore revolutionary new technology and a patent that could help Apple recapture the mantle of innovation leader with future generations of iPhones.
Solar touch screens
Richard Lunt, Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at Michigan State University's College of Engineering, is leading a team that has just invented a completely transparent solar panel that promises to revolutionize everything from smartphone screens to windshields in cars and buildings.
The key to this technology is a highly flexible, very thin layer of organic molecules that absorb wavelengths of light the human eye cannot see such as infrared and ultraviolet light, and transmit it to a thin strip of solar panels at the edges of the screen.
According to Professor Lunt, "Because the materials do not absorb or emit light in the visible spectrum, they look exceptionally transparent to the human eye...It opens a lot of area to deploy solar energy in a non-intrusive way...It can be used on tall buildings with lots of windows or any kind of mobile device that demands high aesthetic quality like a phone or e-reader. Ultimately we want to make solar harvesting surfaces that you do not even know are there."
Currently the technology is in its infancy, with an efficiency of just 1%; however, Professor Lunt believes the technology can not only be optimized to 5% efficiency, but manufactured at an affordable cost.
Making the entire phone a solar panel
Over at the University of Sheffield in the U.K., Professor David Lidzey is leading a team that's developing ultra-thin perovskite based solar panels that can be spray-painted onto any surface, including cell phones or cars. Perovskite is composed of Calcium Titanate, a very cheap substance found globally. It's able to absorb light in layers 180 times thinner than Silicon and could result in radically cheaper solar panels.
According to Professor Lidzey, "Remarkably, this class of material offers the potential to combine the high performance of mature solar cell technologies with the low embedded energy costs of production of organic photovoltaics...Perovskite cells now have efficiencies of up to 19 per cent. This is not so far behind that of silicon at 25 per cent-the material that dominates the worldwide solar market."
What about Apple?
As fellow Fool Ashraf Eassa recently explained, Apple isn't known for packing iPhones with the latest and greatest technology. For example, instead of using Qualcomm's most advanced LTE-Advanced modem, capable of 300 megabits per second download speed, Apple will choose to use a less advanced, older modem, which is capable of just half that, due to its lower cost.
So you might be forgiven for thinking that, even if this solar screen technology does end up in smartphones, such as those of Apple's arch rival Samsung, that Apple simply isn't interested in integrating solar technology into its phones. On that count you'd be dead wrong.
Apple's got solar on the brain
On May 20, 2014 the U.S. Trademark and Patent Office granted Apple an update to U.S. Patent number 8,730,179 for an "Integrated touch sensor and solar assembly."
Apple's original integrated touchscreen and solar panel patent was filed in 2008, and included a transparent double-sided substrate over a solar panel. The electricity generated would be used to charge the battery and extend battery life. The revised patent allows for the solar panel itself to be flexible, as well as face into the phone. Light channels, such as parabolic mirrors or fiber optics, allow for light to be focused onto the solar cells to generate current.
Apple is often criticized for a lack of innovation since the passing of Steve Jobs. A solar-powered iPhone, even one that simply extends battery life for a day or two, would be an innovation that would not only boost sales, but lay those criticisms to rest. Even if Apple decides to sit on its solar patent, the innovative solar technology mentioned earlier combined with competition from the likes of Samsung (who's fond of packing their phones with every feature except the kitchen sink), makes an eventual solar-powered iPhone a distinct possibility.
Adam Galas has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and Qualcomm. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.