Imagine a world where you never worried that your laptop's battery might lose the will to live. Or one in which the viper's nest of power cables that nestles behind your PC vanished in a puff of technology.
In short, imagine an alternative reality in which power wasn't delivered by cables but transmitted wirelessly through the ether. It sounds like science fiction, but as we found out during a visit to Intel's funky Seattle research lab, it's very real indeed.
Of course, you could argue that wireless power is nothing new. After all, induction based wireless systems are commercially available. But the problem with induction is that the power delivered falls off exponentially as you move an object away from the source. It's a major constraint.
Intel's take on wireless power, however, is much less sensitive to distance. Eventually, it could allow devices to draw power from distances as large as several metres, enabling entire rooms – or perhaps aircraft cabins – to be wirelessly powered.
Magnetic resonance could be the answer
Strictly speaking, the technology is based on similar magnetic principles as those found in conventional induction. However, Intel's version is essentially a resonator that switches between magnetic and electric fields. As Josh Smith, Intel's Lead Engineer on the project, explains, "In principle, it's a little like a swing. Each time the field switches, it gets a little push."
Currently, the research platform - essentially the same setup as the one briefly demonstrated at the Intel Developer Forum last August - is composed of two large copper loops. One for generating the field, the other to receive or resonate to the field.
To demonstrate how well the system works, Smith and his team showed us a netbook PC hooked up to the receptor loop and powered purely wirelessly at a distance of around three feet. They also showed us a 60-watt light bulb running in a similar scenario.
Impressively, the system is relatively insensitive to position and orientation – a split second manual adjustment of the receptor loop is enough to tune it for optimal power production after repositioning. It also seems to be entirely unaffected by foreign bodies coming between the two coils – be they human, metal or otherwise.
As you can see from our pictures, the research platform is rather ungainly. But Smith claims there's no reason why the receptor coil cannot be shrunk down and integrated seamlessly into laptops and other compact portable devices.
Powering other devices
As if that weren't enough, try this for size. Not only can the system be used to power a laptop wirelessly, it can also turn a laptop into a wireless power source for other devices such as smartphones. When you start thinking along those lines, the possibilities boggle the brain.
Anywho, if you're wondering when this wireless utopia will arrive in your reality, well, that is very hard to say. Smith won't be drawn on predictions for when his project might be productised. But what he will say is this: "It's the kind of technology that will either succeed rapidly or disappear entirely."
Put another way, Intel's take on wireless power - or something like it - will probably either be widely adopted inside 10 years, or not at all.
That said, it could be safety concerns rather than technological barriers that are hardest to overcome. Smith knows well enough that the key issue is not the actual safety of this technology, but how it is perceived. Still, here's hoping it's science and not the shrill, sensationalist mainstream media that decides the future of wireless power.
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