Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Where's Wireless Charging? An Old Idea Gathering Momentum

Posted by Tom Foremski - July 15, 2014

Wardenclyffe 1904

Wireless power pioneer Nikola Tesla’s Wardenclyffe lab building, seen in 1904. (Image source: commons.wikimedia.org)

By Intel Free Press

If you’ve been keeping up with trade shows and tech blogs, you might think that some new breakthrough in wireless energy transfer has taken place in the past year. It hasn’t.

Intel and others have been talking about wireless charging for years. Intel’s former lab located at the University of Washington in Seattle had wireless charging as part of its charter. And in 2009 researchers were demonstrating a magnetic resonance project sending radio signals and power in the same transmission.

Today, the idea and the technology is gaining momentum.

Intel has said that it is working on a completely wire-free laptop by 2016 using WiGig to transfer video and graphics wirelessly, and with wireless charging. Kirk Skaugen, Intel’s PC client group SVP demonstrated how wireless technology could be integrated into a table that could simultaneously charge a laptop, phone, headset and tablet. The company also demonstrated a wireless charging bowl at CES in January.

The next few years will be interesting to watch if the industry can settle on a common standard. The Rezence standard, backed by the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP) appears to be gaining traction according to A4WP’s marketing chair, Geoff Gordon, who not surprisingly says Rezence is the future of the industry.

“We are weeks or months away from commercialization, whereas other organizations like the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC), is just not starting to address this type of technology,” Gordon said. “So if they do decide to go down this path on their own, they’re looking at still 12, 18, 24 months to be what we are today.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting implementations in the works based on other standards such as Qi, backed by the Wireless Power Consortium. Among the most unique is Nokia’s promise of wirelessly charging pants and compatible with Lumia-series smartphones.

Intel and WiTriCity have recently teamed up on a licensing agreement that will allow Intel to integrate WiTricity’s wireless charging technology into its chips. Both companies support the Rezence standard.

An old idea...

While companies ranging from Starbucks to Apple and Intel are increasingly focusing efforts to help consumers cut the power cord in new and unique ways, the underlying technology behind many of these advents is not new. In fact, it’s more than a century old, grounded in the work of an eccentric Serbian-American scientist named Nikola Tesla.

Nikola Tesla pioneered some of the earliest attempts at wireless power transmission before the turn of the 20th century. In the late 1890s, he’d succeeded at wirelessly lighting lamps. Though Tesla never became a household name associated with wireless power, the inductive charging techniques he invented would see a renaissance some five decades after his death in 1943.

It Begins with a Toothbrush

Innovation is often born in unlikely places and when it comes to wireless charging. The Braun Company was perhaps well ahead of the curve. Since the early ‘90s, its rechargeable toothbrushes have utilized induction as a wireless (and waterproof) charging solution.

Other early iterations of wireless charging include transcutaneous energy transfer systems found in surgically implanted devices, such as artificial hearts. In the mid- 90s, Hughes Electronics released the Magne Charge interface, which used inductive charging paddles to power some of the first electric vehicles from General Motors and Toyota.

Arguably, the last major breakthrough in wireless charging occurred in 2006 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where a team led by Marin Soljačić discovered a method for transferring power between coils separated by a few meters. The MIT researchers found that the range could be extended even further through magnetic resonance.

Today, resonance-based wireless charging is fundamentally grounded in the same principles that Tesla pioneered more than a century ago, but incremental advances have enabled entirely new technologies with transformative potential, such as electrified mass transit systems.

“Mass-Bus-Transit is one of the most valuable transportation areas for wireless charging and could enable a complete fleet conversion to flexible, economical and environmentally friendly transport,” said Michael Austin, vice president for BYD America.

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