Wall warts are those external power adapters that come with everything electronic these days. We know they suck. First of all, they're energy vampires, sucking 4 percent of all electricity used in the average US home even when they're not in use. They consume 52 billion kilowatt hours of power annually, the same amount of energy produced by 20 average-size power plants.
They also suck in terms of design. Many are too big and use up both sockets. Some are too heavy to stay in their sockets.
Doug Palmer of Calit2 at UCSD thinks there's a better way. He's designing a prototype for a Universal Power Adapter, or uPower adapter, a "smart" device that would supply both power and communications to consumer electronics.
Palmer's adapter would serve as a single power supply for one or more mobile devices, "requesting" the voltage needed, when needed, and delivering that and nothing more. This makes sense when you think that many modern electronics use only 3 to 12 volts yet have to deal with wall sockets that deliver 220 or 100. In theory, even hybrid cars could be plugged into the uPower adapter.
The smart design might also improve conditions in the developing world. Palmer is collaborating with Calit2's India Initiative, which works with the Indian government, universities, and NGOs to create collaborative projects. One of India's most pressing needs is reliable energy in a country that lacks a reliable power grid. Paired with a low-cost solar panel, the uPower adapter might provide lighting to some of India's 1 billion for the first time.
See? When we actually use our much-vaunted intelligence, the future looks better.
Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.