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Technology | Emerging technology will enable device users to unplug but still recharge

Issue: "Border gridlock," Aug. 9, 2014

Wireless charging of portable tech devices looks to be the next major revolution in electronics. Last month Starbucks announced a partnership with Duracell Powermat that will put wireless chargers into the tables and counters of its 7,500 company-owned stores in the United States. Other public places will follow. 

“The problem we’re trying to solve is very simple,” said Ran Poliakine, the Israeli-born CEO of Powermat, during an interview last month with CNN. “When you’re out and about the city, you’re running out of battery. You’re getting into Starbucks, you place your phone on the counter and you get a charge while you’re having your coffee.”

Wireless charging solves several problems: The biggest one is battery life. Surveys show smartphone users often experience what’s called “battery anxiety”—the fear of running out of juice when they need it most. Public wireless charging pads are like gas stations for phones or tablets, providing a reassuring electric power infrastructure that compensates for less than ideal battery life.

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Charging electronic devices wirelessly also eliminates the weaknesses associated with a physical connection. Charging ports are frequently the first hardware component to fail in an e-reader, phone, or digital camera. And wireless charging completely eliminates the need for lugging around the correct charging cords and all the awkwardness and trip hazards of wires in public places.

The physics behind wireless charging has been known for more than 150 years. British scientist Michael Faraday discovered the principle of magnetic induction in 1831. But its widespread application for wireless power is practical now because of the prevalence of very low power devices—such as smartphones. The first wireless power standard emerged in 2008. In 2012, Power Matters Alliance (PMA) announced a modified version of the original standard.

But just as we had competition between standards like VHS and Betamax for videotape technology and Blu-ray versus HD DVD for digital video, a newer technology for wireless power transmission emerged in the last couple of years. Based on magnetic resonance rather than induction, the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP) standard allows for much more flexibility in wireless charging. Unlike the Starbucks charging stations, which are based on the PMA standard and have to be physically mounted into the furniture, A4WP-based charging stations don’t require direct contact between your phone and the charging pad. Users can even charge multiple types of devices with differing power requirements in the same area. 

The big beneficiary from all this competition for a wireless charging standard? The consumer. Already this year the PMA and the A4WP have signed a preliminary agreement to adopt each other’s technologies. More and more smartphone manufacturers are turning out devices with integral wireless charging, and many of these are dual-mode, supporting both standards.

No more power cords? No more stress over battery depletion? With power available in the very air around us, the 100-year-old technology of the wall socket could be a thing of the past.

Listen to Michael Cochrane discuss wireless charging on The World and Everything in It:

Smart Truck

Daimler

Daimler Trucks has demonstrated a self-driving truck. The Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025, an 18-wheeler, drove autonomously on a stretch of Autobahn in Germany at up to 85 km/hour (52 mph) while deftly avoiding a parked emergency vehicle. The driver did nothing. “Autonomous driving will revolutionize road freight transport,” said Wolfgang Bernhard, Daimler Trucks and Buses chief. —M.C.

Michael Cochrane
Michael Cochrane

Michael is a retired Defense Department engineer and former Army officer who is an adjunct professor of engineering management at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Michael on Twitter @MFCochrane.

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