Cut the cords: wireless charging is closer than you think

Cut the cords: wireless charging is closer than you think
From the moment Nikola Tesla tried to erect his Wardencliffe tower on Long Island, with the intent to make a global wireless electricity system, we've tried to blast those electrons without cables.

With the incessant amount of battery-powered gadgets we use every day now, wireless charging is back in vogue, and whoever masters it first will make billions.

There are three buzzwords currently in the field – inductive, radio, and magnetic resonance charging. Let's have a look at what's on offer from each of those technologies that vouch to liberate us from the cord.

On the market now - inductive charging

Inductive charging is cheap and simple to manufacture. It is not the most practical, but a lot of companies have gone the inductive way because it is the most cost-efficient, and there are already tangible products on the market, so it will probably take off one way or another.

One of the more recent developments is Fulton Innovation's partnering with Verizon to offer wireless charging capability formed as an accessory to the carrier's LTE handsets. At CES 2011 the company showed back covers for the LG Revolution (our hands-on here), as well as for some other of Verizon's upcoming LTE handsets that will be sold as an accessory soon, and will allow you to use a Verizon-branded charging pad, also shown at the Expo.

The other new one is, of course, the Touchstone 2 for charging HP's latest smartphones and the TouchPad tablet it built after acquiring Palm. The original Touchstone will always have a place in history for being the first accessory for wireless charging, bundled commercially with a phone.

Have a look at the eCoupled offering of the Michigan-based Fulton, they even have mid-range inductive charging that works for more than a few inches, but the efficiency is quite diminished. In April Fulton should be delivering its solution to police and firefighter teams, among others.

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We'd be remiss not to mention Energizer and Powermat (our review here), which was the first to offer a third party wireless charging solution, and now has affordable inductive charging bundles for the most popular smartphones on the market. It recently entered a partnership with Qualcomm to create pads for its WiPower standard, which are to be backward compatible with the existing Powermats.

WiPower is a company Qualcomm bought last year, and whose solution, using near-field magnetic resonance, allows you to just unload the charging devices on the pad, without worrying too much about the exact position. It still requires very close proximity to the charging station, so we are teaming it up in the inductive charging section, and Intel is also working on this technology. Qualcomm also entered partnership with Duracell, and plans to embed WiPower in office furniture, thanks to the alliance with furniture manufacturer Gill Industries – have a look at the WiPower capabilities from about 1:35 into the video below.

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An industry standard, called Qi (Chi), from the Chinese word for energy flow, emerged last year to  completely unify and develop the inductive charging solution. More than 70 companies, including phone manufacturers like Nokia, Samsung, HTC, Sony Ericsson and Motorola, as well as carriers like Verizon, battery and accessory makers, are members now. The big moves for introducing common hardware are expected this year, as exemplified by the Verizon-branded charging station at Fulton's CES booth this year.

The inductive solutions above work only up to a few inches, and usually require you to place your phone or other gadget on some kind of a charging station, often in a certain way, which almost defeats the purpose, since you can as well plug it in, or use a dock.

But what else is there? Is there some promising technology that could release us from the obligation to plug in our smartphone, or place it around dedicated pads in order to charge it?

Upcoming technologies - radio frequency and magnetic resonance charging

There are in fact two of them – radio and magnetic resonance charging. Theoretically they are superior to inductive charging, since they offer larger distances between the charged device and the source, and can easily charge multiple gadgets simultaneously, regardless of their position.

Radio charging can work from the longest distances of all, and even without a dedicated transmitter - it can eventually harvest the radio frequency (RF) energy that is beamed all around us by various sources. The commercial viability is demonstrated best by Powercast, which has developed a dedicated transmitter for radio charging, but also demoes some RF harvesting in the video further below. The competitors are trying to diminish radio charging with a transmitter, saying that it might interfere with stuff like pacemakers and motorized wheelchairs, but the CEO of Powercast dismisses those as trash talk.

Nokia's UK team has also been doing great research into this other aspect of radio charging, RF (radio frequency) harvesting, and its goal on last check was to achieve enough milliwatts harvested from the electromagnetic radiation around us, to keep a phone on standby indefinitely, and afterwards enough to slowly charge the battery, and allow it to make a call.

And, finally, we got to magnetic resonance charging. It doesn't offer the range of RF charging, since even the promising research with great system design speed advantages by Fujitsu, reaches 10 theoretical feet distance. It is quite efficient, though - regular chargers give us 30-40% efficiency, and here we can hit twice that, so wireless charging might even be the greener technology in the end. Fujitsu expects to commercialize its solution first for cell phones and other small gadgets in 2012, and then move on to larger objects, like electric cars.

On the US side, an MIT assistant professor together with some colleagues, have developed a magnetic-resonance charging system of their own, which has a commercial name for it, WiTricity. It's been demoed to power a TV without cables from about five feet, and applied to cell phones also. A cool demo video for that one is below as well.

What about health concerns? The inventors and manufacturers of magnetic resonance, inductive and radio charging, claim that their solutions are tested, and don't interfere with living organisms in a harmful way, so your goldfish shouldn't be more exposed to waves than it already is. As far as we know, a year of living near a Wi-Fi router will net you the same radiation as a 20 minute cell phone call; we don't know precisely how much radio charging might emit, but it couldn't be a huge number.

We can't wait for the day to untangle ourselves from cords and power adapter bricks. Whichever technology prevails, we hope it does it soon, and we can start on making it ubiquitous, so we seamlessly charge our gizmos the minute we enter the house, the car, or at public places.

Watch a cool demo of how both magnetic resonance and radio charging, WiTricity and Powercast, respectively, work in reality, and prepare to be dazzled, since things have advanced even more from the time this video was shot a year ago.

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What are your thoughts on wireless charging? Will you wait until the distances get far enough that you don't have to place your cell phone on or very near a charging station, or are you so fed up with cords that any affordable solution like inductive charging will do?

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