Anyone with a dying cellphone has wondered in frustration when our so-called “wireless” phones will be able to do without that umbilical cord of modern life — the power cable. After years of speculation, the solution may finally be at hand: Samsung is expected release a wireless charging kit for its Galaxy S3 phone this fall.
Wireless power could reduce demand for power cables while making gadgets more durable, eliminate the need for throwaway batteries, and perhaps even accelerate the adoption of electric cars. Watchers of this embryonic market think it’s going to be huge.
IMS Research estimated last year that it will be a $4.5 billion market by 2016. Pike Research projected a few weeks ago that wireless power products will triple in the next eight years to a $15 billion market.
“This is one of the technologies that has a lot of prospects in various markets,” said Farouk Balouchi, an analyst for Pike, in an interview. “It’s not exactly a green technology, but it’s something that can help mobile devices become more energy efficient and more green and sustainable.”
In fact wireless charging, also known as inductive charging, has existed for years in devices like electric toothbrushes. But actual contact between charger and device was required until 2006, when Marin Soljac(ic’, a professor at MIT, demonstrated that he could light a lamp from a distance of six feet without a power cord. The centerpiece of this “resonant magnetic coupling” is a conductive coil that is fed a current of electricity. That coil creates a magnetic field, and if placed in proximity to a coil of similar size, the two resonate, creating an electrical current with no wires.
Here are some of the ways that wireless power transmission could change the world.
1) Kill the Power Cord.
One of the obvious, and obviously awesome, benefits of wireless charging would be to ditch the power cord while on the move or to not have to plug in when at home. Just don’t expect to wander very far from a power source.
The model that’s shaping up is one of wireless hubs that are extremely local. A power transmitter would be installed underneath a surface at which people spend long stretches of time, such as a coffee table, conference table, nightstand, or a car’s trinket tray. “You just come in an drop the device on the table and it will begin to charge,” said Mark Hunsicker, who the senior director of wireless power at Qualcomm and spokesman for the Alliance for Wireless Power, an industry consortium that is developing standards.
At first, the range will be just a couple of inches and will work only with devices that work on five watts of power or less, like cellphones and bluetooth headsets, Hunsicker said. The hub will be able to charge multiple devices simultaneously. Over time, as the technology improves, so may range and power. The roster of the Alliance for Wireless Power offers some insight into how wide the interest is and how deep in the supply chain it lies. It includes telecommunications manufacturer Qualcomm and industrial heavyweight Samsung, as well as Gil Industries, a maker of auto assemblies and office furniture; Peiker Acustic, a sound equipment supplier in autos and mobile devices; Ever Win International, a maker of power adapters and chargers; semiconductor company NXP; and SK Telecom, the Korean mobile carrier.
Retail establishments may one day offer wireless charging as an amenity like free wi-fi is today. This juicing on the go, known as “snack charging,” could appear in airports, banks, retail stores and coffee shops, Balouchi said.
A power-cord-free device is a desirable goal for manufacturers, and not just because it could make a gadget waterproof. Hunsicker said the highest failure rate in mobile equipment is the power cord, which becomes kinked and frayed with use. “We absolutely believe that you can eliminate a charging cord for billions of devices,” he said.
And of course, power cords that are never made will never need to be disposed of, eliminating a major source of e-waste.
2) Overthrow the Disposable Battery.
Customers have never really taken to the rechargeable versions of batteries like AAAs, AAs and Ds. You just can’t beat the convenience of the standard alkaline battery that we pop into flashlights, use — and then toss into the landfill by the billions every year.
With wireless power, though, the environmentally friendly rechargable battery may just win the battle against disposables.
That’s because disposable batteries are often used in devices that exist just inches from a power source, like wireless keyboards and mouses. Place a wireless power hub in the mother computer, and the batteries that power the peripherals batteries would need to be replaced rarely, if ever, said Witricity’s Giler. Other devices that wander but have a home base, like cameras and flashlights, could be redesigned to have a permanent rechargeable battery, like a cellphone but without the power cord.
3) Make Charging an Electric Car Easier than Pumping Gas. Many people would like to buy an electric car but are dogged by doubts about whether it has the range to get where they want to go, or worry that plugging it in will be a hassle. Wireless power could blunt both of these concerns — and even make the gas station burdensome by comparison.
Several companies including Witricity and Plugless Power are developing wireless hubs for electric car charging. Witricity has licensed its technology to Delphi, the auto parts maker, and Qualcomm and Renault just announced a plan to integrate such charging into Renault vehicles. By placing a magnetic resonant disk on the ground and another in the car’s undercarriage, an EV driver could charge by simply parking over a disk that could be placed on the floor or embedded in the pavement.
Looking even further out, researchers at Utah State University and Stanford are exploring the idea of embedding resonant coils in the roadway itself, meaning that a car could charge itself while driving.
They say that it ain’t easy being green. But if wireless power catches on, it may become a whole lot easier.
July 24, 2012