The revolution will be powered... wirelessly
A view from Dino Burbidge

The revolution will be powered... wirelessly

The technology to charge a phone remotely could one day power entire towns in the developing world, writes WCRS' director of tech and innovation.

There's a silent revolution about to broadside us in 2017. Nope, not machine learning. Not bots. Not even virtual reality or self-driving cars. As unlikely as it may seem, boring old wireless charging is one of the things I’m most excited about. I know, I know. But hear me out on this one – it’s more interesting than you think.

Now, before I start getting too excited, here’s the science. Wireless charging is really quite simple. If you wave a magnet or any electromagnetic field next to a coil of wire, it makes electrons flow in the wire. Flowing electrons are electricity. And that’s pretty much all there is to it. So stick a coil of wire on the back of your phone and hold it near a special charging station (which emits alternating magnetic fields) and your phone will start to charge.

Wireless charging has been around for a fair while. In fact, Tesla (the original one) filed a patent more than 100 years ago. Some mobile phones have had wireless charging built in for years (most recent Samsung phones have it). Even Ikea has charging pads built into some of its furniture. It’s pretty much a done deal. Only it’s not. Not even close.

Why? The short answer is Apple. The long answer is actually shorter: Qi. Almost ten years ago, manufacturers set up an industry standard called Qi. It was supposed to kick-start the wireless revolution but, well, it didn’t, obviously. It was all a bit too boring and small. However, the interesting thing about wireless charging is that it’s scalable. Make it bigger and you can charge stuff from further away or just charge more power-hungry devices such as TVs or lights.

The problem is that it’s not very efficient. Pumping out relatively high- power electromagnetic waves in all directions in the hope that it hits a device dangling nearby is pretty wasteful. Luckily, companies such as E.ON and Energous are developing focused beams of energy to pick out chargeable devices and deliver power only where it’s needed. What’s more, it can work up to ten metres away. Yes, you read that right. Ten metres.

So let’s change up a cog or two and do a bit of future-gazing. With efficient solar power on the rise and the abundance of – well – sun, it’s not inconceivable that power will one day be a relatively plentiful and cheap resource, much like we consider water now.

You’ll just plonk a TV on a wall and it will work. Your phone charge will last forever. You can just throw a handful of lights at your Christmas tree and they will just work. Or just park your car on your drive and it’ll charge automatically.

You’ll probably have a personal energy contract too, much like you have a mobile network contract now. A wander through your local town centre will see you sipping wireless electricity from a myriad of shops and adapted street furniture as you pass. Your bill will be automatically distributed to everyone who helped.

It’s not inconceivable that power will one day be a relatively plentiful and cheap resource, much like we consider water now.

That’s assuming MegaCorp Inc doesn’t own the entire franchise – if you were wondering, yes, the Qi standard does allow the provider to know who’s using the energy.

Many industries will be revolutionised. Medical implants or prosthetics can be powered remotely. Tiny, self-powered devices smaller than a grain of sand can help keep neurological conditions in check.

Drones can be powered remotely and do away with heavy batteries. They can stay up for hours, months or even years. Even commercial craft could scoop up energy as they fly over cities. Roads can soak up solar energy and transfer it to cars as they pass over them. No, wait, that’s already happening.

New homes won’t need wires. In fact, entire towns in the developing world can be powered without the need for wired infrastructure, disruption and the huge expense that entails. When one in five of the world’s population doesn’t have access to electricity, that’s a big deal.

But I suspect you’re getting the point by now.

It’s not just about charging your phone on a weird- looking dinner plate any more. And no, I haven’t forgotten about Apple. It may have lost some of its mojo of late but it is still the one company that can light a fire under a technology and make it sexy, popular and commercially viable.

If the iPhone 8 isn’t chargeable wirelessly, I’ll eat my shorts. Without a charge port, it will be the first-ever 100% port-less phone. It’s happening, folks.

Dino Burbidge is the director of technology and innovation at WCRS.

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