Power 2.0 pulls plug on cables

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 March, 2012, 12:00am


Wireless gadgets are built on a big lie. Smartphones, game consoles, laptops and tablets are fast making homes hotspots where Wi-fi rules, and within a generation virtually every appliance could be networked and exchanging data, but all these gadgets and gear still need power.

While a world devoid of cables could take decades to realise, the first products are already on sale.

Wireless electricity transfer, in which power is beamed around a house to gadgets and appliances, is being developed by scientists with the goal of cutting short more than just domestic electrical wiring. Although it's unlikely to bring down pylons any time soon (although beaming electricity using lasers via satellites is technically possible), wirelessly transferring power to electric cars will soon be possible.

The flag-bearer for wireless power so far is the all-in-one charging mat. Several are already on sale for as little as HK$350, but have yet to catch on largely because they still need to be plugged into a wall socket. Developed specifically for mobile gadgets and using magnetic induction charging technology, the mats charge gadgets without the need for individual cables, though the devices have to be fitted with a receiver and adaptors for mini and micro USB, and other proprietary tips for smartphone brands. Up to four devices can use these mats at the same time, but it's hardly a fuss-free use of wireless energy.

Duracell Powermat, a clubbing together of two companies offering charging mats, has developed a wireless charging card that slips in behind a gadget's battery and instantly makes it compatible with wireless charging. Whether it becomes popular depends on smartphone manufacturers building it into their devices.

'The wireless revolution of recent years has highlighted the need for a new approach to power,' Ran Poliakine, CEO at Powermat, which formed a joint venture with Duracell, is quoted by Business Wire as saying. 'The only thing stopping us enjoying the freedom of a truly wireless world is the power cord.'

Duracell president Stassi Anastassov is convinced that wireless energy shouldn't just be about novelty, but an improvement on the batteries in all mobile gadgets. 'Our smartphones are becoming both smarter and more power hungry than ever. A charge that used to last a week, today barely gets us through the afternoon ... continued advances in electronics, therefore, are dependent on a fundamental rethinking of how devices are powered.'

Or perhaps they'll develop their own technology. Without international standards, the revolution could be dogged by incompatibility and proprietary standards, so Duracell Powermat has helped form the Power Matters Alliance to work on a suite of next-generation protocols that cover mobile, computing, in-car, consumer electronics and power in houses and public places.

The new standards are named Power 2.0, and besides transmitting power without cables, they will add a 'digital layer' to energy transfer that adds two-way communication between the gadget and power source. Cue internet-savvy software and services, and the close attention of brands such as Google and Facebook, which have both stated their commitment to the project.

'We can all agree with the notion that sticking three bits of metal into a wall is outdated,' says William Stofega of IT market intelligence firm IDC. 'Power's ability to communicate a problem should be more subtle than blowing a fuse, and power should have a whole lot fewer problems to start with.'

'Managed power' is the game here, according to Bruce Nordman at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. 'We can reinvent our electricity from the bottom-up, with 'nanogrids' for a system architecture modelled on internet principles. With Power 2.0, a table with embedded wireless power could act as a nanogrid, and so can a car.'

General Motors has signed up to fit its cars with the technology, but so far, Power 2.0 is concentrating primarily on making sure our gadgets are charged up easily. Magnetic induction charging isn't efficient - too much energy is lost in the transmission - but WiTricity, a company founded by US physicists five years ago, is trying to fix that.

Based on a transmitter and receptor that exchange energy when their resonance is synchronised, much like when a singer hits the right note to shatter a wine glass, WiTricity's patented system can be scaled to transfer anything from milliwatts to kilowatts. Currently, a maximum of 3.3 kW of charging power can be wirelessly sent to an object up to 20cm away.

That's about the distance between a car and the ground, a fact not lost on IHI and Mitsubishi Motors, which are using WiTricity's idea for a trial in which electric cars will be wirelessly charged in both private homes and public spaces, such as car parks. You simply drive your electric car into a parking space with a charging pad, and while you exhaust your credit card in the shopping mall, your car's battery is replenished. Easy - and that's the point, according to WiTricity CEO Eric Giler, who thinks wireless charging could be a deciding factor in popularising electric cars. 'They must be user friendly', he says in a press release, 'and wireless charging is an important feature that greatly improves the user experience.'

There are many hurdles to overcome before cables and charging ports can be lost forever - not least a global infrastructure for electric cars - but the sheer energy behind it could put wireless electricity on the cusp of power.