Wireless Electricity at TED Global 2009

by Vikki Chowney on 28th July 2009

One of most impressive things I saw at TED Global 2009 last week was a live demonstration of mobile or ‘wireless’ electricity. It sounds incredible, and quite frankly, it was.

Its electric...

It's electric...

After some insight into the core components of how and why, Eric Giler – CEO of WiTricity – used his company’s system to turn on an LCD TV, as well as a range of mobile handsets.

To do this, Giler connected the WiTricity power source (which coverts AC current into an oscillating magnetic field) to a generator. The power source converts magnetic energy into alternating current, powering – in this case – the TV and phones.

Both the WiTricity power source and ’capture’ component (which is installed on the electrical appliance you want to power up) are highly resonant magnetic systems that can exchange energy in a very efficient manner. The aim is to miniaturise and package the technology so that it can be built directly into a wide variety of products and system.

WiTricity uses the concept that electricity can be sent over short distances using a technology similar to radio transmission. At the moment, the magnetic coupling can send enough power over the air to charge or run something from up to a few feet away. As we saw live on stage, it was an almost instant power source, turning on after only a 10 second lapse.

The end goal is that there will eventually be a power transmitting unit within all of our houses, providing power for all of the electronics placed close to it and eliminating the need for multiple plugs.

WiTricity was founded in 2007 to commercialise a technology that had been invented two years earlier at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). A team, led by Professor Marin Soljacic, developed the theory for ‘wireless electric power transfer’ in 2005, which was then validated in 2007.

Giler told us that the idea was born after Soljacic had been lying in bed listening to his wife’s mobile do the ‘low battery’ noise for the third night in a row. Though the man just wanted a decent night of sleep, there’s definitely a joke in there about a Physicist having to invent something instead of getting up and just turning it off. But anyway, he thought that it would be fantastic if the current running through the wires in his walls could pass through the air and charge the phone.

This wireless concept also prevents many of the potential safety hazards and inefficiency associated with electro-magnetic energy. This was one of the main features of the system that helped Professor Soljacic win the MacArthur Fellowship award in September of last year (also known as the ‘Genius Grant’).

When talking about the potential for implementation, Giler talked about electric cars, and that even though they’re beautiful, who really wants to drive up to a charging station (designed much like modern petrol pumps) to wait for their cars to ‘charge’?

He spoke of a world where you could simply drive into a garage and your car would charge itself by driving onto a WiTricity matt. He even said the company had received a call from a company that wanted to use the system for an electronically-heated dog bowl. In fact, his exact words were; “you go from the sublime to the ridiculous”.

Giler spoke of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, including their attempts to transmit electricity wirelessly that failed due to financial restraints. WiTricity on the other hand holds the exclusive licence for this technology, so if its capabilities are developed as quickly as the growing number of applications, they’ll be set to make a killing.

For a more detailed description of the technicalities, keep your eyes peeled for Giler’s talk on TED.com.

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