PostHeaderIcon Fast Forward: Wireless Charging = Wireless Waste

MPC116.qs halfhill

With 65 percent of energy wasted, wireless charging has a way to go.

Imagine huge transcontinental airliners powered by wireless energy, cruising the skies unburdened by bulky fossil-fuel tanks. Such a future was imagined for 1985 in the science-fiction novel Haunted Airways, published in 1937. Instead, 1985 brought us Cherry Coke and Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.”

Thirty years later, we still don’t have those fabulous, wireless-powered airliners. But we’re getting Wi-Fi in coach class, so at least there’s some progress. My point is that wireless energy has been a futuristic dream for a long time—in fact, since the days of Tesla (Nikola, not Musk). The latest manifestation is wireless charging for our battery-powered gadgets.

This technology began appearing at least 10 years ago. Although much has happened since then, I’m still a skeptic. Oh, sure, it works. Some mobile phones have built-in power receivers that communicate with wireless charging pads or cradles. You can just plop your phone on the pad and let it recharge overnight, without ever fumbling with a USB cable.

Two problems. First, even after 10 years, the industry still can’t agree on a universal standard that enables any phone to work with any wireless charger. In fact, more variations keep coming. And some are radically different, so they aren’t easily merged. The second problem is that wireless charging wastes energy and probably always will. Air is simply a less efficient conductor than copper. (It’s a blessing. Otherwise, life would be electrifying.)

One of the latest wireless-charging systems is a big departure from the conventional inductive systems now vying for adoption. An Israeli startup, Wi-Charge, is using mirror-guided infrared lasers to transmit power at distances up to 30 feet. The transmitter focuses the laser on a receiver that has a concentrated photovoltaic cell, which converts the beam’s photons into electrons. Basically, it’s like shining a flashlight on a solar panel. Light goes in, electricity comes out.

Of course, even the wildest Greenpeace hippie wouldn’t propose generating electricity this way. The flashlight batteries would consume far more energy than the solar panel would generate. But practicality is no obstacle when consumer convenience is the goal. Wi-Charge says its laser system is 35 percent efficient, which means it’s 65 percent inefficient. Two thirds of the energy input disappears into the ether. And unlike the sun’s energy, it isn’t free.

To me, that inefficiency is a high price to pay for replacing a cable. A million users here, a million users there, and pretty soon we’re talking about real megawatts.

Let’s be fair to Wi-Charge. Its laser system is a clever invention for some applications. For example, fire alarms, surveillance cameras, and wireless speakers are often located in hard-to-reach places where AC power isn’t readily available. And the company appears to be taking the necessary safety precautions by using low-power Class 1 infrared lasers that won’t accidentally burn holes in objects or people who pass through the beam. (The transmitter and receiver require a clear line of sight.)

I’m less enthusiastic about charging mobile phones this way, though. Are we really too lazy to plug in a cable? Even with a wireless charger, the phone is immobilized while it’s charging, so tethering isn’t a severe hardship. The only arguable advantage is there’s no cable to misplace. That’s progress, I suppose. But it probably wouldn’t inspire a 1930s science-fiction writer.

Tom Halfhill was formerly a senior editor for Byte magazine and is now an analyst for Microprocessor Report.

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