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The Other 1 Percent

Will the days of scrambling for a last-ditch charge soon be a thing of the past?
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(Photo: Thomas Pajot/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Thomas Pajot/Shutterstock)

It’s happened to us all. You’re a thousand miles from home or just too many miles from your charger, and the “low battery” alert appears. You dim your backlight. You carefully close applications one by one, but 20 percent still falls to 10, and then, before you know it, the last few electrons flowing through its circuits are spent warning you that your mobile phone is at one percent.

Yes, that one percent: the end of life as we know it, or at least life with our phones. Inevitably it’s the very moment we need our phones for navigation or communication, only to have frittered away all of the battery life on texts and tweets.

It’s the one percent of which most of us have been part since more than half of all Americans own a smartphone. We scramble in our bags or forage in our purses, hoping that we remembered to pack a charger; if we’re lucky we have, but even then we’re at the mercy of electrical outlets in whatever hinterland we’ve found ourselves. That’s where I find myself most often: equipped with the charger, but without anywhere to make use of it. Power, power everywhere, but not an outlet to access.

I don’t know how we’ll explain the terror of the one percent to future generations whose lives really will be wireless, powered entirely by atmospheric energy.

My own quest for power has left me pleading with bartenders, begging train conductors and doormen, bribing baristas and store clerks. The desperation of those final moments, just before the phone gives up the ghost, has driven me to make best friends of strangers. It’s a particular kind of humiliation to explain why you won’t be able to make it back to your hotel without an app or why you don’t know your friend’s address because you didn’t write it down; it’s a decidedly modern addiction to confess that yes, you are so addicted to your phone that you can’t possibly live an entire hour without it glowing warmly in your hand.

Looking around cafés and coffee shops, I see that I’m not alone. There’s a specific kind of side eye reserved for the students who hog outlets for hours at a time, camping out as if they don’t have electricity of their own at home. The fight for outlets is so fierce at airports and train stations that I won’t even bother scavenging. Who can forget the images that appeared after Hurricane Sandy, when eight million New Yorkers all crowded around lampposts and power bars for what little power was still in service or provided by generators?

I have owned a laptop for almost a decade and can’t remember ever having the same crisis of connectivity that happens at least once a month with my mobile phone. Even when I was toting my laptop around the world, I never feared its dwindling power supply: when the battery died, it was dead, and I’d pack the beast in my bag until I next had power of my own. I can’t say I ever once borrowed a charger for my computer, but I’ve borrowed a charging cable for my phone at least a dozen times and bought at least two replacements in a pinch. Our so-called wireless lives have never had so many wires: chargers and spare chargers, charger adapters, and outlet splitters.

Yet there’s new hope for our tangled, cord-tethered lives. The wireless charging movement is upon us. There’s already a purse that can charge your phone or tablet twice before the accessory itself needs to be recharged. A universal hybrid solar charger that takes four hours of conventional power or 10 hours of solar power to charge but then provides portable power for other devices. And inductive charging, using universal charge pads, is available for home use and in select Starbucks, Tea Leaf, and The Coffee Bean locations. Granted, these are all temporary fixes: they delay the arrival of the one percent, but we’re still fixed to particular locations or tied to outlets for eventually repowering.

Not having to carry a charging cable is one kind of freedom, but never again having to chase down or plead for an outlet is another. Last fall, researchers at Duke University announced that they had found a way to harvest energy from microwaves. Their metamaterial cells convert the microwaves directly into current voltage: capturing energy from the air to charge the batteries or small electronics or even power lights. The same materials could be incorporated into electronics to recover power when they’re not in use or to harvest energy from satellites and cell towers in remote locations.

I don’t know how we’ll explain the terror of the one percent to future generations whose lives really will be wireless, powered entirely by atmospheric energy. I suppose our outlet hunts will sound to them like walking to school uphill both ways through the snow: they’ll just never believe that time you had to serenade the bartender to get her to plug in your phone behind the bar, when you hung out at the Apple Store for 20 minutes just so you could find your way out of Manhattan, or even when the flight attendant let you sit in first class just long enough to charge your phone for a single call.