He was right. Only gods mess with electrons. Only a fool would shoot them into the air. And yet, I'm in a conference room with a scientist who is going to let 120 volts fly out of the wall, on purpose.
"Don't worry," says the MIT assistant professor and a 2008 MacArthur genius-grant winner, Marin Soljacic (pronounced SOLE-ya-cheech), who designed the box he's about to turn on. "You will be okay."
If Soljacic is correct -- if his free-range electrons can power up this untethered TV from across a room -- he will have performed a feat of physics so subtle and so profound it could change the world. It could also make him a billionaire. I hold my breath and cover my crotch. Soljacic flips the switch.
Soljacic isn't the first man to try to power distant electronic devices by sending electrons through the air. He isn't even the first man from the Balkans to try. Most agree that Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla, who went on to father many of the inventions that define the modern electronic era, was the first to let electrons off their leash, in 1890.
Few believed it could work. And to be fair to the doubters, it didn't, exactly. When Tesla first switched on his 200-foot-tall, 1,000,000-volt Colorado Springs tower, 130-foot-long bolts of electricity shot out of it, sparks leaped up at the toes of passersby, and the grass around the lab glowed blue. It was too much, too soon.
But strap on your rubber boots; Tesla's dream has come true. After more than 100 years of dashed hopes, several companies are coming to market with technologies that can safely transmit power through the air -- a breakthrough that portends the literal and figurative untethering of our electronic age. Until this development, after all, the phrase "mobile electronics" has been a lie: How portable is your laptop if it has to feed every four hours, like an embryo, through a cord? How mobile is your phone if it shuts down after too long away from a plug? And how flexible is your business if your production area can't shift because you can't move the ceiling lights?
The world is about to be cured of its attachment disorder.
WIRELESS JUICE: A PRIMER
Tech 1: Inductive Coupling
The practical benefit of this approach is huge. You can drop any number of devices on the charging pad, and they will recharge -- wirelessly. No more tangle of power cables or jumble of charging stations. What's more, because you are invisible to the magnetic fields created by the system, no electricity will flow into you if you stray between device and pad. Nor are there any exposed "hot" metal connections. And the pads are smart: Their built-in coils are driven by integrated circuits, which know if the device sitting on them is authorized to receive power, or if it needs power at all. So you won't charge your car keys. Or overcharge your flashlight. The dominant player in this technology for the moment seems to be Michigan-based Fulton Innovation, which unveiled its first set of wirelessly charged consumer products at the Consumer Electronics Show early this year. Come April, Fulton's new pad-based eCoupled system will be available to police, fire-and-rescue, and contractor fleets -- an initial market of as many as 700,000 vehicles annually. The system is being integrated into a truck console designed and produced by Leggett & Platt, a $4.3 billion commercial shelving giant; it allows users to charge anything from a compatible rechargeable flashlight to a PDA. The tools and other devices now in the pipeline at companies such as Bosch, Energizer, and others will look just like their conventional ancestors. Companies such as Philips Electronics, Olympus, and Logitech will create a standard for products, from flashlights to drills to cell phones to TV remotes, by the end of this year.
TECH 2: Radio-frequency Harvesting
TECH 3: Magnetically Coupled Resonance
Importantly, then, WiTricity doesn't depend on line-of-sight. A powered coil in your basement could power the rest of the house, wirelessly. Will the cat be okay? "Biological organisms are invisible to, and unaffected by, a magnetic field," Soljacic says. While I am mulling that statement, he tells me the company will not yet reveal the name of its partners because those partnerships haven't been formalized, but they include major consumer electronics brands and some U.S. defense customers.
As has been the tradition since Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison angrily parted ways in 1885, the enormous consumer demand for wireless electricity is begetting intense competition. Last November, a consortium of manufacturers coalesced around Fulton's eCoupled system. But Fulton and WiTricity aren't the only companies fighting to bring wireless electricity to market. WiPower, in Altamonte Springs, Florida, has also created an induction system and says it, too, is close to announcing partnerships. And Pittsburgh-based Powercast, an RF system, sells wireless Christmas ornaments and is testing industrial sensors for release this summer.
Just as Tesla derided his doubters as "nothing more than microbes of a nasty disease," some name-calling is inevitable in this increasingly heated battle. WiPower, for example, insists that the eCoupled technology approach has several problems. "Their system is very sensitive to alignment, and I've heard there's a heating issue," says CEO Ryan Tseng. "Our system is more elegant, much less expensive, and easier for manufacturers to integrate." Meanwhile, Powercast calls Dave Baarman, Fulton Innovation's director of advanced technologies, "irresponsible" for wondering aloud whether RF power solutions could be dangerous around pacemakers and powered wheelchairs. "It's competitive drivel," says Steve Day, Powercast's VP of marketing and strategic planning. "Baarman has been saying this for a couple of years, because what we do will eventually replace what he does."
But as I stand, covering myself, in that featureless suburban conference room, such bickering fades to background noise. Because with Tesla's 100-foot-long lightning bolts and blue grass vivid in my mind, I have a big question: Will Soljacic, the MacArthur Foundation fellow, be able to turn on that Toshiba TV from across the room? Or will I be bathed in a magnetic field so intense my molecules all align to face true north?
After he flips the switch, the little television, 5 feet away, springs to life. Wirelessly. The DVD player inside spins up to a low whine. Colors flicker on the moving screen. And Soljacic's eyes dance with the reflected light of the image.
Posted by Zach Royer | 8:30 AM HAST | April 20th, 2011 Please Like Us and Share on Facebook