Photograph by Phillip Toledano

Wireless Electricity Is Here (Seriously)

I'm standing next to a Croatian-born American genius in a half-empty office in Watertown, Massachusetts, and I'm about to be fried to a crisp. Or I'm about to witness the greatest advance in electrical science in a hundred years. Maybe both.

Either way, all I can think of is my electrician, Billy Sullivan. Sullivan has 11 tattoos and a voice marinated in Jack Daniels. During my recent home renovation, he roared at me when I got too close to his open electrical panel: "I'm the Juice Man!" he shouted. "Stay the hell away from my juice!"

He was right. Only gods mess with electrons. Only a fool would shoot them into the air. And yet, I'm in a conference room with a scientist who is going to let 120 volts fly out of the wall, on purpose.

"Don't worry," says the MIT assistant professor and a 2008 MacArthur genius-grant winner, Marin Soljacic (pronounced SOLE-ya-cheech), who designed the box he's about to turn on. "You will be okay."

We both shift our gaze to an unplugged Toshiba television set sitting 5 feet away on a folding table. He's got to be kidding: There is no power cord attached to it. It's off. Dark. Silent. "You ready?" he asks.

If Soljacic is correct — if his free-range electrons can power up this untethered TV from across a room — he will have performed a feat of physics so subtle and so profound it could change the world. It could also make him a billionaire. I hold my breath and cover my crotch. Soljacic flips the switch.

Soljacic isn't the first man to try to power distant electronic devices by sending electrons through the air. He isn't even the first man from the Balkans to try. Most agree that Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla, who went on to father many of the inventions that define the modern electronic era, was the first to let electrons off their leash, in 1890.

Tesla based his wireless electricity idea on a concept known as electromagnetic induction, which was discovered by Michael Faraday in 1831 and holds that electric current flowing through one wire can induce current to flow in another wire, nearby. To illustrate that principle, Tesla built two huge "World Power" towers that would broadcast current into the American air, to be received remotely by electrical devices around the globe.

Few believed it could work. And to be fair to the doubters, it didn't, exactly. When Tesla first switched on his 200-foot-tall, 1,000,000-volt Colorado Springs tower, 130-foot-long bolts of electricity shot out of it, sparks leaped up at the toes of passersby, and the grass around the lab glowed blue. It was too much, too soon.

But strap on your rubber boots; Tesla's dream has come true. After more than 100 years of dashed hopes, several companies are coming to market with technologies that can safely transmit power through the air — a breakthrough that portends the literal and figurative untethering of our electronic age. Until this development, after all, the phrase "mobile electronics" has been a lie: How portable is your laptop if it has to feed every four hours, like an embryo, through a cord? How mobile is your phone if it shuts down after too long away from a plug? And how flexible is your business if your production area can't shift because you can't move the ceiling lights?

The world is about to be cured of its attachment disorder.


TECH 1: Inductive Coupling
Availability: April

>> THE FIRST WIRELESS POWERING SYSTEM to market is an inductive device, much like the one Tesla saw in his dreams, but a lot smaller. It looks like a mouse pad and can send power through the air, over a distance of up to a few inches. A powered coil inside that pad creates a magnetic field, which as Faraday predicted, induces current to flow through a small secondary coil that's built into any portable device, such as a flashlight, a phone, or a BlackBerry. The electrical current that then flows in that secondary coil charges the device's onboard rechargeable battery. (That iPhone in your pocket has yet to be outfitted with this tiny coil, but, as we'll see, a number of companies are about to introduce products that are.)

The practical benefit of this approach is huge. You can drop any number of devices on the charging pad, and they will recharge — wirelessly. No more tangle of power cables or jumble of charging stations. What's more, because you are invisible to the magnetic fields created by the system, no electricity will flow into you if you stray between device and pad. Nor are there any exposed "hot" metal connections. And the pads are smart: Their built-in coils are driven by integrated circuits, which know if the device sitting on them is authorized to receive power, or if it needs power at all. So you won't charge your car keys. Or overcharge your flashlight.

The dominant player in this technology for the moment seems to be Michigan-based Fulton Innovation, which unveiled its first set of wirelessly charged consumer products at the Consumer Electronics Show early this year. Come April, Fulton's new pad-based eCoupled system will be available to police, fire-and-rescue, and contractor fleets — an initial market of as many as 700,000 vehicles annually. The system is being integrated into a truck console designed and produced by Leggett & Platt, a $4.3 billion commercial shelving giant; it allows users to charge anything from a compatible rechargeable flashlight to a PDA. The tools and other devices now in the pipeline at companies such as Bosch, Energizer, and others will look just like their conventional ancestors. Companies such as Philips Electronics, Olympus, and Logitech will create a standard for products, from flashlights to drills to cell phones to TV remotes, by the end of this year.

TECH 2: Radio-frequency Harvesting
Availability: April

>> THE INDUCTION SYSTEMS are only the beginning. Some of the most visually arresting examples of wireless electricity are based on what's known as radio frequency, or RF. While less efficient, they work across distances of up to 85 feet. In these systems, electricity is transformed into radio waves, which are transmitted across a room, then received by so-called power harvesters and translated back into low-voltage direct current. Imagine smoke detectors or clocks that never need their batteries replaced. Sound trivial? Consider: Last November, to save on labor costs, General Motors canceled the regularly scheduled battery replacement in the 562 wall clocks at its Milford Proving Ground headquarters. This technology is already being used by the Department of Defense. This year, it will be available to consumers in the form of a few small appliances and wireless sensors; down the road, it will appear in wireless boxes into which you can toss any and all of your electronics for recharging.

TECH 3: Magnetically Coupled Resonance
Availability: 12-18 months

>> INVENTED BY MIT'S SOLJACIC (who has dubbed it WiTricity), the technique can power an entire room, assuming the room is filled with enabled devices. Though WiTricity uses two coils — one powered, one not, just like eCoupled's system — it differs radically in the following way: Soljacic's coils don't have to be close to each other to transfer energy. Instead, they depend on so-called magnetic resonance. Like acoustical resonance, which allows an opera singer to break a glass across the room by vibrating it with the correct frequency of her voice's sound waves, magnetic resonance can launch an energetic response in something far away. In this case, the response is the flow of electricity out of the receiving coil and into the device to which it's connected. The only caveat is that receiving coil must be properly "tuned" to match the powered coil, in the way that plucking a D string on any tuned piano will set all the D strings to vibrating, but leave all other notes still and silent. (This explains why Soljacic considers the machinery that create these frequencies, and the shape of the coils, top secret.)

Importantly, then, WiTricity doesn't depend on line-of-sight. A powered coil in your basement could power the rest of the house, wirelessly. Will the cat be okay? "Biological organisms are invisible to, and unaffected by, a magnetic field," Soljacic says. While I am mulling that statement, he tells me the company will not yet reveal the name of its partners because those partnerships haven't been formalized, but they include major consumer electronics brands and some U.S. defense customers.

As has been the tradition since Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison angrily parted ways in 1885, the enormous consumer demand for wireless electricity is begetting intense competition. Last November, a consortium of manufacturers coalesced around Fulton's eCoupled system. But Fulton and WiTricity aren't the only companies fighting to bring wireless electricity to market. WiPower, in Altamonte Springs, Florida, has also created an induction system and says it, too, is close to announcing partnerships. And Pittsburgh-based Powercast, an RF system, sells wireless Christmas ornaments and is testing industrial sensors for release this summer.

Just as Tesla derided his doubters as "nothing more than microbes of a nasty disease," some name-calling is inevitable in this increasingly heated battle. WiPower, for example, insists that the eCoupled technology approach has several problems. "Their system is very sensitive to alignment, and I've heard there's a heating issue," says CEO Ryan Tseng. "Our system is more elegant, much less expensive, and easier for manufacturers to integrate." Meanwhile, Powercast calls Dave Baarman, Fulton Innovation's director of advanced technologies, "irresponsible" for wondering aloud whether RF power solutions could be dangerous around pacemakers and powered wheelchairs. "It's competitive drivel," says Steve Day, Powercast's VP of marketing and strategic planning. "Baarman has been saying this for a couple of years, because what we do will eventually replace what he does."

But as I stand, covering myself, in that featureless suburban conference room, such bickering fades to background noise. Because with Tesla's 100-foot-long lightning bolts and blue grass vivid in my mind, I have a big question: Will Soljacic, the MacArthur Foundation fellow, be able to turn on that Toshiba TV from across the room? Or will I be bathed in a magnetic field so intense my molecules all align to face true north?

After he flips the switch, the little television, 5 feet away, springs to life. Wirelessly. The DVD player inside spins up to a low whine. Colors flicker on the moving screen. And Soljacic's eyes dance with the reflected light of the image.

Paul Hochman is the gear and tech editor for Today on NBC and host of MSN.com's GearDaddy.

Photograph by Phillip Toledano

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  • Peter Donald

    Tesla was both a genius and a great, mad, fool. He trusted the likes of the false Jew, JP Morgan, to finance his inventions. Tesla's greatest mistake was to trust ungodly men who love and worship the god of money (Mammon); whose end is destruction and endless torment in Hellfire. The writer of this article blatantly misrepresents Tesla and lies directly about his bona fide free electricity inventions. But why should this surprise any of you? The man writing this lying piece of shit is also a member of the Synagogue of Satan. His love and worship of a false god has deluded him to believe he can lie directly about the truth -- and easily get away with it (and bank his fraudulent kickbacks from the likes of IBM or Philips electronics. What a surpise he will find, when he sees Jesus on the Throne -- and he is thrown body and soul into Hell!! It is not wrong to want to charge a cost for services rendered (such as charging for electricity); however, destroying people for gain is clearly evil

  • Craig Hicks

    Seems to me like you are trying to weasel in some pretty ugly ethnic hatred into your story - very Satanesque if you ask me. Einstein was a Jew too - living his life of pure scientific inspiration. You tried to leave yourself a little moral escape clause: "false" before Jew. However, it is obviously insincere. There is still time to grow up, Paul.

  • lindsey.jeff

    you sir, are out of your damned mind. What a surprise you will find when your little black hateful heart gets laughed into the express lane to hell. Wow... just wow lol

  • Chris Anton

    he then contracted cancer moments later. Riddled with tumors, he fell to the ground gasping, "Hit the switch! Hit the switch!"

  • LePaul Wuornos Gardner

    What if the electrons followed a path while flying through the air? This might allow for more range as this 'path' would also in a way push the electrons. There could be more control over where the electrons actually go, which in turn makes the whole process more efficient because of less waste. I'm not sure if this is anything plausible but I can think of one possible 'pathway' these electrons could use if it were in fact possible.

  • TJ

    Isn't this what magnetic resonance associated to frequency does? Perhaps not ultra efficiently yet but by using magnetic resonance the electrons are brought into alignment and "zip" to the receiver device(s) tuned to the exact same frequency. This is conducive to longer distance transmission. Perhaps improvements could come through the use of crystal controlled oscillators (in obtaining precise stability)?

  • WantsWirelessElectricity

    How come it is now almost 2013 and still can't buy wireless electricity devices???

  • Bystander

    @Michael A "cause a light to burn four miles away"?? Keep dreaming (or don't forget to take your meds). hehehe

  • Springfieldcomputers

     Your user name is a proper epithet offering about as much as your comment does.  It offers nothing.  No hope, no help, nothing.

  • Daniel Gonzalez

    NIKOLA TESLA. I hate people who take credit for others work. The story about Tesla's 'power towers' shooting 130 foot lightning volts is completely misconstrued and untrue. It has been falsely linked to his Tesla coil, which he had invented years earlier. The power towers which were designed to broadcast alternating current wirelessly and safely had no adverse side effects. In fact it was documented by major newspapers at the time (I had a link of the scans somewhere, I'll have to hunt it down) that he provided to electricity to a bank 27 miles away. Said bank contained 200 light bulbs. There were no incident reports of blue glowing grass or the toes of bystanders being electrocuted (in fact, it is very easy to disprove even the notion that such a bolt would even be attracted to the toes of a human being. It would be attracted to the torso, or center mass, because that is where it is most attracted to. The toes don't provide much in the way of electrical conductivity or attraction, period.) The story of the wireless power attempt failing was a scheme told about 20 years after his death in an attempt to discredit Tesla. He very successfully achieved wireless transmission of free power. If you look at the FBI file on Tesla obtained under the FIA, and you look for the patents on this design, you'll see that the mechanics (albeit the technology being a tad more modern) of how this transmits power is basically a scaled down version of Tesla's wireless transmission towers.

  • TheWizard

    Tesla never finished his power tower do to funding. Therefor never powered any business with it. Though not finished, at one point he did turn it on as is and reports from neighboring areas reported it lighting up the sky. That was it though.

  • Kenneth Leber

     @Daniel Gonzalez Tesla's towers were also designed to capture electricity from the air. The  towers were 100Ft wire antennas connected to a large capacitor. the other capacitor terminal was connected to a 100 foot rod buried in the ground. The cumulative stored energy was significant. That method of capturing electric energy should be more than ample to charge batteries in electronic devices.