Tesla’s dream: Wirelessly powered devices that get their energy out of thin air

For those who know me, it comes as no surprise that one of the men I admire most is Nikola Tesla.

Not the famous inventors like Edison or Newton. Not the renowned geniuses like Einstein or Hawking. And certainly not the great leaders of human history, because nearly all of them became ‘great’ through violence of some sort. Well, except for Mohandas Gandhi.

Nikola Tesla. Genius. Technophile. (I love the guy so much, he’s featured in a work of fiction that I’m writing, albeit in a historical context, not as a living character. And I developed my fondness for the man long before it became fashionable.)

Alas, he was also a man not only ahead of his time, but lacking in the ruthlessness necessary even to see to his own needs. There are many stories about how both Edison and Westinghouse took advantage of Tesla’s lack of business acumen. He died nearly penniless.

Nikola Tesla's portrait

Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), photo at age 34

One of Tesla’s great dreams — which he nearly made a reality — was to develop a system of totally wireless power distribution. His revolutionary idea was to use a quality of electromagnetic fields known as “resonant inductive coupling.” An analogy: Imagine, if you will, a tuning fork vibrating. Put another identical tuning fork next to it, very close, and soon both will be making a sound.

This method is actually in use today, although in much smaller applications and usually over smaller distances: Passive radio-frequency (RF) chips and ID cards. Devices such as phones and toothbrushes that recharge by being put on a platform or inserted into a non-connecting charger. Electrical transformers, such as the ones outside our homes and businesses use the same basic technique — a powerful electric field in one device “inducing” a sympathetic field in another.

Tesla’s dream was to scale this up and do it over vast distances, and he even had some demonstrations where he lit street lamps using what he termed “electrodynamic induction.” In 1899, he managed to illuminate light bulbs at a distance of 100 feet, while experimenting in Colorado Springs, CO.

Cool, huh? Well, researchers at the University of Washington have come up with an even cooler idea. A wireless electronic communication technique that has no dedicated power source at all, neither on the transmitter nor the receiver.

Original Tesla Coil

Tesla’s originally patented coil, which used a system called “the disturbed charge of ground and air method.

The concept is based on using the great soupy sea of electromagnetic signals we already live in. For example, all around us there are TV broadcast signals, WiFi signals, cellular, microwave data transmissions, satellite — you name it.

Most of you are probably far too young to remember crystal radio kits. Well, I’m approaching ‘older than dirt’ territory, and so I recall very well the day I bought my first one from Radio Shack and eagerly put it together. (At the age of 6, I was allowed to handle a soldering iron, but only with supervision.) Crystal radios use the power of the radio signal itself to run the device and produce sound in a small earpiece.

Imagine if you will taking ambient EM signals and using them to power an electronic device that converts it into a completely different transmitted signal.

As lead researcher at UW, Shyam Gollakota, describes it, his team’s technique uses a method called “ambient backscatter.” These small devices (about which you can learn more at this link right here) take the energy generated from reflected (backscattered) signals to transmit information.

University of Washington - Backscatter Devices

University of Washington — Ambient Backscatter devices (from their video here)

For their prototypes, they tuned them to use TV broadcast signals for power.

The researchers tested the ambient backscatter technique with credit card-sized prototype devices placed within several feet of each other. For each device the researchers built antennas into ordinary circuit boards that flash an LED light when receiving a communication signal from another device.


They found that the devices were able to communicate with each other, even the ones farthest from a TV tower. The receiving devices picked up a signal from their transmitting counterparts at a rate of 1 kilobit per second when up to 2.5 feet apart outdoors and 1.5 feet apart indoors. This is enough to send information such as a sensor reading, text messages and contact information.

The team also thinks it might be possible to scale this for cell phones so that enough power to transmit text messages could be generated, even with a totally dead battery. (My guess is they’d need to be simple, predetermined messages, such as an emergency call for help, because there wouldn’t be enough power to run the phone display.)

One of the applications they demonstrate in their video (embedded below) is wireless transactions between two of the backscatter devices.

Their prototype and the associated research (PDF at the link) won the best paper award on 13 Aug 2013 at the Association for Computing Machinery’s conference in Hong Kong.

I truly think Tesla would’ve loved this invention — a device that uses no energy, save that which is already in the air from other sources. His ideal was a world where there were no telegraph or telephone poles, no electrical transmission wires or conductors, except at the device level. Here’s another example of how visionary the man was:

“When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do his will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.”

Nikola Tesla interview by John B. Kennedy in 1929


In closing (and off-topic): John Aravosis has made a terrible, terrible mistake: Me.

Some of you who’ve made it this far down a somewhat wonky science post may have noticed a new name at the top and bottom. And some might see that name and worry whether this author is the same ‘BeccaM’ who’s been an obsessively prolific (and long-winded) AMERICAblog commenter for a while now. Alas, sadly, it is true. She is me. John ignored his better judgment (I suspect it’s all that rich French food he’s been enjoying while on his trip) and asked me to become a regular contributor.

I hope it takes me at least as long to destroy AMERICAblog as it did for John Oliver to ruin The Daily Show. Y’know, give John time enough to find a respectable replacement gig or to have Chris in Paris formally adopt him.

Although I’ve been particularly active on LGBT issues posts, I’m planning to write on a wide variety of topics, both serious and ‘fun.’ On my list are women’s issues, civil rights in general, technology and science, and pretty much anything I run across on the Intertoobz that I find interesting. Like this, for instance — it’s science, technology, and cool.

Published professional writer and poet, Becca had a three decade career in technical writing and consulting before selling off most of her possessions in 2006 to go live at an ashram in India for 3 years. She loves literature (especially science fiction), technology and science, progressive politics, cool electronic gadgets, and perfecting Hatch green chile recipes. Fortunately for this last, Becca and her wife currently live in New Mexico. @BeccaMorn

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50 Responses to “Tesla’s dream: Wirelessly powered devices that get their energy out of thin air”

  1. Whitewitch says:

    Hey Becca great job! I had a crystal radio and recently got one for my grandson…as every child should have the thrill of building one! As to Tesla..have loved him as long as I have known of him (say 30 years or so)…so sad he was not as loved then as he is now.

  2. vejo says:

    Yes, he was an amazing mind. But why no mention of the fact that he had no known relationships? Could he have been gay?

  3. Teri Beige says:

    Only few knows this genius and his works.
    irs tax tables 2013 4

  4. Mighty says:

    Cool article. I love this kind of stuff.

  5. karmanot says:

    Tesla was ,to my thinking, one of the great minds in world history.

  6. Kevin Johnston says:

    A very interesting post. Looking forward to see what else you write. :)

  7. BeccaM says:

    :-) It’s appreciated.

  8. BeccaM says:

    Let’s see… in my first post, the one on Regnerus, I’ve been accused in the comments of failing to give credit to other people’s work, writing a terrible post, writing a totally unnecessary post, and overt acts of plagiarism.

    Yeah, I’d say I’m being tested. (Must…Not…Post..Troll-B-Gone graphic again…)

    I think your advice there is excellent though, and I will definitely keep it in mind. Thank you very much.

  9. karmanot says:

    Not to worry, some of us do troll patrol.

  10. karmanot says:

    A most welcome addition to AB!

  11. SkippyFlipjack says:

    I’d like to second that — thick skin. it’s the commenters’ job to argue, and the writers’ job to stay above the fray. Answer questions but don’t get drawn in to the petty bits, even when you really really want to. Others will have your back; let them and stand clear. You’ve moved upstairs, be aware of the difference. Good luck! :)

  12. BeccaM says:

    Neat! And thanks.

  13. BeccaM says:

    All true. In the demonstration video, they showed two of the devices exchanging fictional currency. So there’s at least enough power available to write to some form of non-volatile memory, operate controls to change the intended value, and of course to transmit to a waiting device to increment/decrement whatever currency value it currently has. In any case, we’re still talking enough bps bandwidth to do useful things, provided the devices are close enough.

    Two other limitations mentioned in the associated paper: One is these devices can interfere with the EM signal upon which they’re camping. For instance, if using TV broadcast frequencies, moving the device close to a TV will produce small but noticeable interference on reception.

    The other is just a minor technical problem, in that they were using off-the-shelf components, which are designed to be powered conventionally. The researchers seemed to think they could get much better performance if this concept was implemented using custom-made electronics, able to function on a tiny fraction of the usual power requirements.

  14. mpeasee says:

    Great science article! Awesome! Congratulations as well, can’t wait to read more great articles in the future!

  15. BeccaM says:

    :-) Thanks, Myrddin.

  16. silas1898 says:

    Great piece. Tesla is so cool. Congratulations. I look forward to reading more of your stuff.

  17. Monoceros Forth says:

    There’s something peculiarly American, I daresay, about the veneration of the successful businessman over the successful scientist. Edison is the guy who made it into all the textbooks as a brilliant inventor even though his most famous inventions were all really invented by someone else. Edison really was the prototype for Steve Jobs: make some incremental improvement upon an existing technology and then squeeze every dime possible out of that minor achievement.

  18. ComradeRutherford says:

    “women’s issues, civil rights in general, technology and science”

    AmericaBlog is in good hands.

  19. StraightGrandmother says:

    That is a cool article! Thanks

  20. ArthurH says:

    I’m surprised Tesla wasn’t mentioned in the history books that were used in the elementary and grade schools I attended in younger days. After all, the technology used to provide electricity to every home and business descended from Tesla’s work. They had a great documentary about Tesla on The History Channel year ago, before that cable service joined the race to produce the most dumbed-down copy of “Duck Dynasty.”

  21. StraightGrandmother says:

    If you are on Twitter follow Jude Newton

    @Jxnewton & @Aksarbent
    They come up with some pretty cool stuff also @FreakOutNation

    Aksarbent has a pretty cool article on how the melody to the national Anthem is actually a gay melody.

  22. smkngman3 says:


    “In South Korea, Wireless Charging Powers Electric Buses”


  23. Lui Rixx says:

    I agree Nikola Tesla is a genius, however, very few know him and his contributions in our society.

  24. Badgerite says:

    Good post!

  25. newbroom says:

    So, where’s the book that tells all about the decision to dematerialize and subsequent travels?

    I find your full page writing interesting and enjoyable so far!

  26. MyrddinWilt says:

    Its not a kooky idea, it is an idea that works only on a very small marginal scale. You can’t use ‘free energy’ to power a light or a toaster. Using free energy to send a wireless signal is about the limit of what is possible.

    This is one of those ideas where the idea itself is the easy part, the really hard part is the execution. The ‘free energy’ system will be delivering a minuscule fraction of a Watt. doing something useful with that is hard

    If we could make this work and have a wireless temperature sensor in each room of the house talking to a repeater, then we could make a big difference to heating and A/C energy use.

  27. MyrddinWilt says:

    Welcome to the team!

  28. Thom Allen says:

    Ahhh, KDKA. One of my mother’s friends was their switchboard operator and had a crush on Bob Kudzma.

    The geeks out there might be interested in this You Tube video, and his others. This guy uses natural science and math to demonstrate some parlor tricks that seem simply amazing line balancing a sheet of paper on its edge on the tip of your finger. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rYAsst2TxPk&feature=em-subs_digest

    Nice job, Becca. I started reading the post without looking at the author’s name and thought that John’s writing style had changed! Then, about halfway through, I looked and saw who did write it.

    I read a biography of Tesla and it was really fascinating. Brilliant, eccentric, quirky (to say the least).

  29. BeccaM says:

    Thanks, Steve. :-)

  30. BeccaM says:

    You’re making me blush, hon.

  31. BeccaM says:

    I remember reading those storied — and it’s happening in many places, in addition to Texas — and thinking, “This is how the world moves on…

  32. BeccaM says:

    Interestingly, in what I’ve seen about the great men and women of science, is quite a few of them embraced “kooky” ideas, along with the ones for which we know them. I’ve often wondered if it was exactly this dismissal of convention that enabled them to think (sorry about this) way, way ‘outside the box.’

    Thanks. :-)

  33. BeccaM says:

    Thank you for the words of encouragement. I think there’ll be more Tesla from me in the future, for sure — hopefully that which is both unsettling and true.

  34. KingCranky says:

    Congrats to John for having another strong voice on this site, and double congrats to Becca for the gig, you truly deserve it.

    Hope you’ll cover more of Tesla’s works & theories, especially the unsettling ones.

  35. The_Fixer says:

    Becca, great post. As a radio and electronics guy, I’ve known about Tesla for quite a while. His greatest “sin” was his embrace of some rather kooky ideas that were the exact opposite of his careful scientifically-based thought and work.

    It was only a matter of time before you got “drafted”. Your comments are always insightful, and based in fact (and supported by the facts). I love reading them, and look forward to your articles.

  36. Naja pallida says:

    I find myself amazed that an almost fantastical technology envisioned a century ago is coming to fruition in one corner of the country, while in another corner, the state of Texas is actually grinding up paved roads because they no longer have the income from taxation to afford to maintain basic infrastructure. Infrastructure that is being destroyed by overuse by private business. It really is a great metaphor for the Republican party. Vote Republican: Turn all your roads to gravel.

  37. Dave of the Jungle says:

    Yes. Edison was merely a trial and error inventor. Tesla was a visionary.

  38. BeccaM says:

    Another interesting (to me anyway) detail about Tesla was even though he didn’t seem to know how to interact with women at all (and yes, he was said to be a life-long celibate), in that 1929 interview I linked above, he said he thought the world would be a much better place if women ran it.

    Because we were naturally superior in nearly every way. (lol)

  39. 2patricius2 says:

    I’m sure you won’t. I have read enough of your postings to say that with confidence.

  40. BeccaM says:

    Much obliged! Hope I don’t disappoint.

  41. BeccaM says:

    Thanks Zorba. It was a huge honor when John asked me to join his crew.

  42. BeccaM says:

    Thank you. I’ve already had to practice it some in my actual first post… hopefully these lighter ones, which John’s asked me to write from time to time to counterbalance his heavy news, won’t be as rough.

  43. BeccaM says:

    True story: A friend of mine growing up lived not far from one of the KDKA radio transmission towers. He had a tangle mass ball of wires about the size of a melon under his bed, with one of those old ear-plugs on the end. It picked up the station just fine, and he used to listen to it most every night after going to bed.

    The fact the ball of wires actually functioned as a radio was a secret I was never supposed to tell anyone. So, in keeping with my 5th grade self, I won’t identify him. ;-)

  44. PeteWa says:

    crystal radio kits were incredible when we were kids, I could barely believe that they could exist, and that it was something I could do, such fun!

  45. Monoceros Forth says:

    Somewhere years and years ago I came across in one of those books of DIY electronic circuits (probably one of the old TAB books) a very simple circuit for doing a similar thing: a tuned LC circuit tuned to a strong local AM station was used to supply power to a one-transistor AM receiver. This sounds like a much, much, much more advanced version of the same principle.

    Tesla really was amazing and his genius extended to multiple fields, not just his work with electricity which made him famous. One of my favorite inventions of his is the “bladeless turbine” in which the source of drive is viscous drag of the working fluid between closely spaced parallel discs.

    He was also a bit of a showman. And a bit of a weirdo: http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=61

    (Might as well cite the other Kate Beaton Tesla comic: http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=256)

  46. Naja pallida says:

    Go Becca go… if only I could be half as creative and talented. :)

  47. Steve_in_RI says:

    As a huge BeccaM fan, I am thrilled to have you here!

  48. bkmn says:

    Welcome to the clubhouse.

    Thick skin will be an important development for you in the coming days. That said, I think you will be fine.

  49. Zorba says:

    You go, Becca! I am looking forward to your front page stories.
    And, for the record, I absolutely agree with you about Tesla. ;-)

  50. 2patricius2 says:

    Becca – great and fascinating article. I’m looking forward to reading your articles in the future.

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