min read

Shedding the Wires

by Chris Cox , 13.09.2012

Chargers are an inevitable result of ubiquitous consumer electronics. There are phone chargers, tablet chargers, iPod chargers, laptop chargers, and the extension cables required to support them all. At one stage, it became so complicated that the EU stepped in, passing legislation to make all phone chargers identical[1]. But despite this move, we need a lot of wires to keep our devices blazing away.

Yet wireless power transfer has been around in one form or another since the late 1800s, when individuals like Nikola Tesla began experimenting with the technology and demonstrating its feasibility. Since then, the technology has continued to evolve although never truly becoming a widespread feature of consumer electronics. However, all that might be about to change due to a confluence of events necessitating new approaches to old problems.

It is increasingly clear the future of motor travel is electric, which will drive a major change in how power is made available; the electrical equivalent of petrol stations will be required. However, charging a battery is not the same as filling a petrol tank. Even the most effective batteries take time to charge, and the most logical point for a car to charge is at the beginning or end of a journey when the driver is away from the vehicle. As such, it makes far more sense to charge cars using wireless induction which uses an electromagnetic field to transfer power between two devices. Consequently, multiple vehicles could be charged from a single station and the risk of unplugging a charging vehicle would be reduced.

Recently, Japanese researchers demonstrated a way of transferring power through a layer of concrete[2]. This raises the exciting possibility of (one day in the future) being able to create infrastructure to charge vehicles whilst they are both on the move and parked. It also potentially means this infrastructure could be hidden. And an indication of the excitement around this technology, later this year, London will host a cooperative project between Qualcomm and Delta Motorsport to experiment using wireless car charging[3].

At the same time, consumer electronics (particularly smartphones) are being designed to include wireless charging technologies. The first of these was the Samsung Galaxy S3[4] with the charging pad set to be released later this year. Apple has also been granted a number of new patents, including one for inductive charging[5]. Nokia has just announced that its new phones will also embrace this trend, and it is even building partnerships to include wireless charging facilities in some public places. In the words of Jo Harlow, executive vice president of smart devices at Nokia “[this is] a first step in our plan to make wireless charging as ubiquitous as Wi-Fi is today.”[6]

In a potentially more dramatic move, Intel is looking to integrate wireless power transmission technology into their laptops. Coupled with this, it wants to put wireless charging into devices using Intel chips[7]. This includes a range of consumer electronics, so could potentially become a sales feature for smartphones, tablets and MP3 players.

But there are wider implications to wireless power transmission, particularly as its efficiency improves and it can power over greater ranges. Consider how home routers evolved over time; first wired, then wireless over a short range, and now wireless over the entirety of a home. Now wireless internet is a ubiquitous aspect of day-to-day life, and with the advent of super-WiFi it will soon be the case that wherever you can be connected to the internet[8].

If wireless power goes the same way you could leave your phone on the kitchen counter without worrying that it’ll go flat overnight. These more ambitious technologies might be out of reach for now, but the future holds exciting possibilities.

There are challenges to overcome for wireless power, most notably extending the range beyond needing to place the device to be charged against the charger. Cross compatibility will also be difficult and consumers are unlikely to be happy about reverting to needing a different charger for their different devices. Producers of wireless technology will need to be sensitive to this, or face a consumer backlash and potential regulatory action.

But if wireless charging devices become more universal with all devices easily charged from common sources, what will stop people stealing power from each other wirelessly? Unlike home routers it won’t be easy, or indeed possible, to lock people out of the power source. There is the associated issue of bills to be considered. Although it might be okay in the home, how will public sources of power be charged back to the user?

The involvement of big names like Qualcomm and Intel in wireless charging signals a move in the technology from an outsider’s fantasy to a mainstream part of everyday life. This promises exciting disruptions in how consumer electronics are marketed and sold as well as how consumers interact with their products. Will Starbucks offer free power to its customers in years to come? It remains to be seen, but there is no denying that this is a technology which can no longer be ignored.