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New Technology Promises to Cut the Cord to Your Battery Charger

By Jim Bray

Isn't it interesting that, in this age of wireless this and wireless that, the most basic function of an electrical device still needs a wall socket? I mean, we have wireless computer networks, wireless telephones, even robot vacuum cleaners that zip around your room, untethered, picking up after you and the dog.

But all of these things still need a wired connection at one time or another because they all need electricity to operate, whether they be powered by rechargeable batteries or AC. Surely there must be a way to get electrical power from point A to point B the same way these devices get their information or their instructions.

It reminds me of the science fiction story "Waldo" from the 1940's by Robert A. Heinlein. "Waldo" – which I believe is also where the term Waldo for remote handling arms came from – told the story of a world in which cheap power was transmitted through the air via something like microwaves. All you needed was an antenna – and a meter to measure how much power you used so the utilities could maintain their deathlike grip on our throats.

Major league power transmission like that isn't on the horizon yet, but it could be near in a much smaller way – and isn't that how these things usually start? Already, a Pennsylvania company is promising a way to deliver power to computer peripherals and the like, without wires, over distances of several meters.

Powercast has come up with a system or wireless power that uses radio frequencies (RF) to get juice from Point A to Point B.

“We’re introducing the first effective way to send power through thin air,” says Powercast CEO John Shearer. Powercast's technology isn't meant to be merely a replacement for a battery charger, however, but a way to either charge a battery continuously or replace the battery itself completely.

Powercast uses a transmitter device that plugs into a wall and which sends out a low-powered radio frequency signal to receivers its range, thereby sending electricity through the air.

“The opportunities are boundless – lighting, computer peripherals, sensors and medical implants.” According to Shearer, “Right now, product engineers and designers are developing next-generation consumer, industrial and medical applications that would be impossible without Powercast technology.”

If the concept is going to become mainstream, equipment makers will undoubtedly either have to build the Powercast receiver into their products or include a way to facilitate the easy adding of one after the fact, perhaps via a small port.

It sounds pretty neat – and the company says that one transmitter can power any number of receiver-equipped devices in range. Of course the issue of being in range is an important one, until the day Heinlein's universal power transmission comes to pass; otherwise the gadget you want to power would revert back to its normal battery-based performance. But even that isn't the end of the world because that's what batteries are for anyway – and remember, this is just a first step in what could be a whole new world of power transmission.

Powercast isn't alone. Researchers at MIT are working on a wireless power solution that involves "resonance," the phenomenon that causes something to vibrate when energy is applied to it at a certain frequency – kind of the same way our ears vibrate to sound waves. Apparently, if you have two objects that resonate at the same frequency they tend to couple – like happened to me once when I picked up the vibrations my then-girlfriend was sending off about wanting to get married. And darned if it didn't work!

Anyway, instead of using acoustic vibes, they're working to exploit the resonance of electromagnetic waves, which not only includes radio frequencies but infrared and X-rays as well.

There's a lot to be worked out, of course, before these technologies are mainstream, but wouldn't it be nice if you never had to recharge your cellphone or notebook computer again?

On the other hand, I'm reminded again about Heinlein's story, in which all that transmitted power was having detrimental health effects on the human race, creating a whole new problem.

You just can't win, can you? In the Heinlein story they got around it by routing the power through a parallel universe. That may sound like a crock, but Heinlein was right about Waldos and it looks as if he may have been right about the potential of wireless power transmission, too. So who knows? This is why I'm opening up an office flogging luxury beachfront lots in that other universe.

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Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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