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Blogs > Quocirca

Transmitting power wirelessly from Colorado Springs to San Francisco
Simon Perry By: Simon Perry, Principal Associate Analyst - Sustainability, Quocirca (Moved)
Published: 28th August 2008
Copyright Quocirca © 2008
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By all accounts, it was a thoroughly exciting demonstration - the lighting of an incandescent bulb from distance with the power being supplied wirelessly. Even from this relatively modest first showing, the technology pundits reported that wireless power transmission heralded a new age of capability and technology wonder that would "offer greater possibilities than any invention or discovery heretofore made". Indeed, so impressive were the results that 100 years later Intel repeated a variant of Nikola Tesla's earlier Colorado Springs-based experiments.

So Intel isn't the first, nor is it the only commercial or academic body researching wireless power transmission. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for one has been active in this field for some time. Intel's claimed success is that it has increased the transmission efficiency to 75 per cent. Oh...and it is Intel, which is a bit different than being some startup that few have heard of.

Intel says the technology isn't ready for prime time, and indicates that we are a few decades away from seeing everyday commercial applications. Such delays will frustrate some, but at least it gives us the opportunity to examine the pros and cons of this very long-desired capability.

Without a doubt we have today only a pale imitation of true "anywhere, anytime" anything, as far as reliance on electrical power is concerned. For a frustratingly short number of hours we get to run off and play with our toys but eventually they whimper and we must return them to suckle again on the renewing and energising nipple of the power socket. To (almost) never have to do that is not necessarily transformational in terms of how we use electrical devices, but it certainly makes it all so much easier. And the bliss of doing away with most of our power cords is self evident. Given that there is so much talk about remote working, home working, and dynamic office estates as future working models that will reduce reliance on commuting and the associated emissions, anything that makes it easier to be untethered from a desk everyday has some merit.

It would be wrong to get carried away with the capability of the technology to completely free us from the tried and trusted power cord however. Just as there are next to no entirely wireless networks we will continue to find that power cords work better for many applications. Any device that draws a high power load will better be served by a cable of rated capacity, so wireless power is more likely to be relied upon as trickle charging source to onboard batteries. Wireless power also introduces yet another point of complexity and potential failure, so any device, for instance a datacentre server, which is expected to have 100 per cent availability is likely to remain wired. Then there is the question of additional cost - power cords cost little to produce in bulk so any device that doesn't need to move may as well be plugged in using one. Just as there are many possible applications for wireless power, there are even more places where cable will remain a better choice.

With the Intel brand so firmly joined with the idea of wireless power in our minds - hardly an accidental messaging strategy on its part - it is natural that we will think of computing devices as being the main beneficiaries of wireless power - but perhaps there are greater benefits to be had beyond the IT realm. Almost every major vehicle manufacturer has voiced some sort of electric vehicle development strategy, however there are far fewer pronouncements being made as to how all those cars will be charged. Sure the Tesla Roadster claims a 220 mile range but at £92,000 it has a long way to go before Mondeo Man becomes Tesla Man. Being able to park all those electric vehicles in specially marked parking bays, drop a few coins in the parking meter and walk away, in the comforting knowledge that the car's batteries will be intelligently topped up by the wireless power transmitter built into the parking bay, is one nice possible solution to future vehicle charging challenges.

However we shouldn't also forget the downsides to this new technology. Another way of saying that Intel has achieved 75 per cent transmission efficiency is that they have cut the power transmission loss to only 25 per cent. No doubt that loss factor will be further reduced - but we should question whether introducing any loss just for sake of convenience is a good idea when we are wondering how to cut emissions from our already over-committed power generation sources.

Second, "wireless anything" tends to encourage an "always on" attitude - somehow, half the convenience seems to evaporate when we need to reach for a switch. How many additional Gigawatts of generation capacity will go in powering wireless transmission capability that is essentially sitting in standby mode?

It seems inevitable that wireless power transmission will become a commercial reality at some point whether from Intel or from another source, unless already-voiced concerns over health side-effects prove to have merit and derail the whole thing. The smart thing to do is for us to take stock and consider just how this new technology capability can best be deployed to support sustainability efforts, and whether the costs exceed the benefits.

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Published by: IT Analysis Communications Ltd.
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