Shopping & Design: Everything under the sun

We may not yet be driving solar-powered cars, but there are plenty of other uses for the sun's energy.

Despite some major hiccups - Three Mile Island, Sizewell, Chernobyl - nuclear power has always been imbued with a certain dangerous beauty: inherent in the spherical, futuristic power plants tucked away in remote areas of natural beauty, or the silent, deadly journeys of Polaris-toting submarines as they circumnavigate the globe. And then there's the method of production itself: rub a couple of unstable atoms up the wrong way and you have liberated enough energy to wipe out half of Siberia.

By comparison, solar power has appeared as mundane as its applications were limited. If you are tempted to get on your high horse and argue that solar-powered cars will be racing down the M1 in the near future, you should check out the prototypes first. Take the Rolla, for instance, winner of Sunrayce 99 in Orlando this year. Yes, it travelled 1,425 miles in 10 days under its own steam. No, you wouldn't consider trading in your beautifully spacious Audi Coupe for what is, essentially, a solar panel on wheels, without enough room for a bag of Sainsbury's shopping, let alone any passengers, in the back.

Spend half a day scouring the Internet for novel ways in which solar power has been put to use, and your worst fears are confirmed. Other than the many sites advertising solar-heated swimming pools and immersion tanks, there are only three of real interest. One is dedicated to the blueprint of a solar-powered tugboat (intended for cruising around Sydney Harbour at the Olympics next year, and bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Opera House itself). The other two are ads for innovative solar- powered tools: a robust icebox with delusions of grandeur (the Global Solar Refrigerator, $995 plus p&p from www.datawise.net) and a small suitcase which, when it unfurls its four reflective panels, becomes a cooker capable of heating food at up to 400F (the Global Sun Oven, $229 plus p&p from www.sunoven.com). Both would be ideal for making life in the Outback more civilised. But neither of them are in any danger of winning awards for good looks or usefulness over here.

However, there are a number of new, more stylish gadgets - ranging from car battery boosters to mole repellers - currently coming onto the market which will help banish the idea that the only successful high street application of solar technology to date is the pocket calculator. Here are five of the best:

1 BayGen Solar-Spring Powered Radio

Price: pounds 59.99; stockists: 0870 908 7002

Description: You may be familiar with BayGen's award winning Bakelite- look radio, the innovative AM/FM (and SW and LW on request) radio, powered by rotating a winding handle. This funkier version - in translucent blue, red, green or clear plastic - is additionally equipped with a small solar panel, which automatically takes over from the mechanical power when the machine is placed in direct sunlight. And if the sun doesn't shine and you really can't be bothered with the 55 rotations required for an hour's entertainment, then you can plug it into the mains using an adaptor (an optional extra).

The splashproof beatbox is perfect for the beach, and has a headphone socket for those who are as considerate about noise pollution as they are about throwing away dead batteries. Only the poorly designed tuning control and the speaker's limitations at top volume detract from an otherwise exceptional product.

2 Solar Multi-Purpose Water Resistant Floating Solar Torch

Price: pounds 29.99; stockists: 0870 908 702

Description: The most annoying thing about torches is that whenever you need one you can guarantee that the batteries inside it will be at best flat, and at worst have leaked corrosive fluid into the battery compartment. Although this bright yellow torch has a back-up compartment suitable for conventional batteries, you should never need to use it. Kept near a window, the solar cells which run along the length of the torch will store up to two hours' "battery" life, usually long enough to fix the blown fuse or to locate the dead rat under the kitchen cupboards.

Why is it multi-purpose? Because it floats and also comes with a bracket for use as a frankly clumpy bike light (front or back - the bottom of the torch houses three flashing red Leds).

3 Moonlight Markers

Price: pounds 24.99 for two; stockists: 0870 908 7002

Description: An incredibly simple concept. Night lights (which can be anchored to the ground, a small - supplied - post or a wall) equipped with a longlife NiCad battery which stores energy via a small solar panel during the daytime, and then automatically transmits light for about eight hours, from dusk till dawn. It can be a mini lighthouse warning you of obstacles lurking in the dark, a dreamy alternative to candlelight, and a burglar deterrent, all in one.

4 Solarc SoLait

Price: pounds 29.95; stockists: 015394 88100

Description: As whisks go, this streamlined, 9.5in tool is not up to mashing a few pounds of par-boiled spuds in a hurry, but then its purpose is rather more genteel. The SoLait (available in lemon and blue, or a less desirable pastel green) is designed for whipping hot milk into a froth for your cappuccino, a task it will accomplish a 100 times before you need to recharge it in the sun (alternatively stand or hang it on its hook facing a window and it will never run down).

5 Sanyo DigiCAM VPC-Z400

Price: pounds 499.99 (at Dixons); stockists: 01923 246 363

Description: Solar-assisted rather than exclusively solar powered, this digital camera's claim to ecological glory is a minuscule solar panel nestling on top of the camera's LCD monitor screen, allowing playback of the exceptionally sharp digital images without draining the camera's alkaline batteries. The camera also boasts optical and digital zoom functions, limited video possibilities (up to 15 seconds of continuous pictures), audio notes, and all the software/leads you need to play about with your pictures on a PC or Apple Mac. The only major design faux pas is the lens cap, which is impossible to clip on firmly.

Alternatively, for those seeking a non-digital solar-powered pocket camera, you may still be able to get the now sadly discontinued Del Sol Sure Shot by Canon (the RRP was about pounds 169.99). Just don't try using it to take pictures of the eclipse in Cornwall on 11 August.

Shaun Phillips is deputy editor of `ZM' magazine

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