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Packing portable power

By Mie-Sarah Lai

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(CNN) -- From houses, cars, and even clothing, solar power is bringing new innovations to light. The latest bright idea is the solar backpack -- and two hit the market this year from companies Voltaic Systems and Eclipse Solar Gear.

The companies say their traveling generators provide enough power in one compact mobile unit to keep your cell phones, iPods, PDAs and most other personal electronics ready to run.

Shayne McQuade, creator of Voltaic backpack that launched December 7 says his travels in Spain inspired this new product: "I had a solar charger in my bag during my trip, it was a pain to take everywhere. At that point I realized that there had to be a better solution, if I integrated solar panels into the outside of my bag that would solve the problem, so I combined the two."

Weighing only 3 1/2 lbs. including the batteries and solar panels, it is extremely lightweight and although it is does not produce enough power to charge a laptop, it is powerful enough to charge most portable electronic items.

"For smaller items I can see that this could be a good survival item," says Jim Motavalli, editor of Emagazine. "If you are stuck somewhere it may be helpful."

The solar backpack is made with UV resistant materials, is nylon padded, and has a high-density foam interior. But McQuade says, although the interior is soft, the panels can withhold rigorous outdoor activity.

The battery pack can be recharged with the convenience of an AC travel charger, car charger or the integrated solar panels, and each bag comes with seven universal adaptors that allow you to juice-up your pack with any available power supply -- giving the ultimate in flexibility to those with an active lifestyle.

McQuade calls the backpack "a mobile power source with many integrated capabilities," for use by city dwellers, overseas travelers, and backwoods campers alike.

He adds that other than the obvious environmental benefit of using solar power, his hope is that the product will increase awareness that solar power has many advantages as well.

Also debuting this year in August 2004 is the "Reactor" Solar Backpack developed by Innovus Design Inc., a Texas-based company that produces the Eclipse Solar Gear product line. "The Reactor" is also a product for outdoor fans and the tech-savvy consumer on-the-go.

So what's the difference between the solar backpacks?

It's all in the power.

"The Reactor" by Eclipse Solar Gear has 2.5 watts of power and has a lower storage capacity than the Voltaic which can generate up to 4 watts -- enough to charge most portable electronics (except laptops).

Motavalli says that consumers should understand that there are limits to what the backpacks can do. "I think it could make sense assuming you are using something that needs a relatively small amount of power, like a cell phone."

Currently, both backpacks offer consumers an affordable, mobile green power solution. And the companies say that more portable power items are in the works.

CNN producer Camille Feanny contributed to this report

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