The TED lectures that you can stream online have become one of my new favourite sources of downtime entertainment and, it seems, both education and inspiration. Seeing great people speak passionately about subjects they have a real buzz for is incredibly engaging and addictive. It was one of these talks that prompted me to sit down and write this post. The subject? Well, it was about wireless electricity transmission. Yep, that’s right. The transfer of electricity without wires.
Now, you’d be forgiven at this point for saying “why should I care?” Unless you are especially nerdy then the words that closed the last paragraph with will probably be anything but inspiring. But let me explain. The speaker, Eric Giler, told the story of an MIT professor’s sleepless night due to his wife’s Nokia mobile phone beeping to say that it’s battery was low. His thought was wouldn’t it be cool if the phone could simply access the huge source of electricity that was literally surrounding it in the form of the house mains supply without needing to be plugged in. Very much like your iPod, computer, laptop, and countless other devices now source their Wifi connection. And so WiTricity was born.
The technology works by means of a phenomenon known as magnetic resonance, in which a magnetic field induced by flow of electric current in an induction loop can, well, induce a magnetic field to form in another device and trigger the flow of electrons, or in other words, the flow of electricity, thus powering the device. Eric demonstrated the technology by placing a specially designed induction loop, about the size of an A3 picture frame near an average flat screen TV. Within a few moments the TV screen lit up! Pretty cool stuff. To demonstrate both the safety and the reliability of the system, the speaker walked between the loop and the TV with no disruption to the TV’s function or any obvious adverse effect to himself. The applications for such technology are pretty wide, as you can imagine, with the need to plug in any device, whether mobile phone, camera or computer to recharge a thing of the past.
The potential medical and veterinary applications are also very exciting. I can imagine a clinic where the annoying beep of a drip pump low on battery will be long-gone, or the ophthalmoscope that someone forgot to return to it’s base station still works as well as ever due to it constantly being fully charged. It may even increase the chances of us achieving the Holy Grail of a GPS-enabled implantable pet microchip. The main issue at present is how to reliably power such an implant for long periods of time (ie the lifetime of the pet), given that you can’t exactly remove it to change the batteries or plug your pet into the mains! Imagine if you didn’t need to worry about it because every time your dog or cat went into the house the chip simply charged itself safely, efficiently and silently, with no adverse effects to your pet yet the peace of mind that comes with knowing that when Pooky heads off again, you can log in and keep tabs on them thanks to GPS. Now that would be great!
A world of wireless electricity? Now that’s an illuminating thought!