Is wireless power transmission on the horizon?

Broadcast power” is one of the holy grails of technical advancement. In the 19th century, we used wires to carry signals (think telegraph, and later, telephone). Signals are changes in electrical current (etc.) that can be interpreted meaningfully (Morse code, for example).

After the creation of electrical motors and dynamos, wires were used to carry actual power (wattage, energy) to make these motors work.

The difference between signals and power is wattage. Electrical signals can use very low power, since it’s the change in electrical current (or voltage, or whatever) that carries the meaning. But actually electrical power needs big numbers — high voltage, high wattage. At the moment, our wired world carries both — signals and power. Not so the wireless world.

The wireless world is signal-only, until now

Consider the wireless world, the world of radio, television, satellite phone, WiFi, and your “smart” device. I’ll bet you haven’t considered that, unlike the wired world, the wireless world is very low power — signal-only. You can talk on your wireless devices, or use them to listen. But you can’t power them in any meaningful way — you can’t charge their batteries wirelessly, for example.

Electricity via Shutterstock

Electricity via Shutterstock

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could power your devices wirelessly? Imagine a world entirely free of power cords. Ever since man has been able to broadcast signals, back in the radio days (at the time called the “wireless”), the ability to broadcast a great deal of power over meaningful distances as well has been a dream. And a seemingly impossible one.

In this spirit, I want to put the following on your radar. It’s highly technical in parts, but the conclusion is plain enough. These are the relevant pieces.

First, this is a way to sidestep something called the “Shannon limits” and get more from existing 5G LTE cell phone technology. If the following is too technical for you, just bear with it. The “mind-blowing implications” the writer alludes to won’t be. (As you read, keep in mind that “wireless communication” means “signal” as discussed above.)

How Steve Perlman’s “Revolutionary” Wireless Technology Works — and Why its a Bigger Deal than Anyone Realizes

Before I get into the technical evaluation of Artemis‘s demo videos and much-ballyhooed claims in the press, let’s cut through the hype:

Is this going to revolutionize wireless communications? While these demos alone don’t necessarily demonstrate speeds beyond what is theoretically capable with LTE systems today, I think the evidence is clear that this technology can offer a solution to the “spectrum crunch” problem, so I’d say yes. From a mobile consumer’s standpoint, it’ll just seem like the next step in evolution from 4G to 5G – much faster, more consistent speeds, and with lower latency. Now, whether or not it actually gets deployed by carriers is another matter all together.

Is this invention completely unique? No! Just last year, a German university demonstrated a working prototype of essentially the same technique (albeit without a snazzy streaming video demo or compatability on traditional cell phones) in the video here. The theory behind this sort of system is referred to as “network MIMO” or “cooperative MIMO” in the literature and “coordinated beamforming” in the 3GPP LTE-A specification [30], and dates back to 2001, if not earlier [1] [2]. But then again, when is an invention ever done in a vacuum? Calculus, the telephone, and the Hall-Heroult process for smelting aluminum were all discovered simultaneously. What Artemis has done is taken techniques that are being proposed for upcoming 5G systems and figured out how to solve all the engineering challenges involved, years ahead of the rest of the industry [3] [4].

Have they broken the Shannon limit? No, they’ve just side-stepped it. Each user now has their own channel, and can use it up to the full Shannon limit without having to share it with anyone else. See the section of theirwhitepaper beginning with “Shannon’s Law is not about spectrum data rate limits, it is about channel data rate limits”.

NOTE: Be sure to read the really mind-blowing implications this technology could have far beyond communication in my conclusion if you’re in a hurry.

You can read through the piece if you like. Very handsome equations put in an appearance, and if you’re halfway smart, it’s an interesting read. Just keep in mind, LTE is the latest cell phone technology.

Broadcast power is one of the implications of this work

Now that “mind-blowing” conclusion (my paragraphing and emphasis):

Overhead wires in Delhi, India (source)

Overhead wires in Delhi, India (source)

What in the world is [Perlman] talking about? “What else is radio used for besides communication?” I asked myself. Nothing, besides radio astronomy. But then I asked myself “What else could radio be used for?” and the answer became clear: wireless power transmission!

You see, while Tesla’s idea of wireless power transmission never got to fruition, using microwave beams to transfer electricity between two places within line-of-sight distance of each other is nothing new — William Brown demonstrated a wirelessly-powered helicopter using microwaves beamed from the ground back in the 60s (notice the tether in the picture, to keep the helicopter positioned in the right place) [28][29].

It was replicated recently by the BBC science show Bang Goes the Theory in their video. You just have an array of rectennas at the receiver to convert the received RF energy to DC power. But it’s never been feasible or practical for any real-world applications because:

You would need to keep steering the transmitting antenna to keep it pointed towards the receiver (which, for all the interesting applications, is mobile). Steering antennas requires either an expensive gimbal mechanism, or an even more expensive phased array. Kymeta‘s metamaterial antennas could dramatically reduce this cost, but it’s in general hard to do.

The amount of power you’re transmitting through the single antenna is far above what is considered safe, should any living being pass through the beam.

The inability to focus the microwave beam tightly means a lot of energy is wasted, and the receiver cannot be near any life forms.

But with Artemis:

You could use beamforming instead of beamsteering, eliminating the cost of traditional approaches.

The power being transmitted would be split among hundreds of antennas, each of which is individually not transmitting harmfully high levels of RF energy. At the location of the receiver constructively interferes to add up to the necessary power required, and everywhere else the radio waves just add up to noise.

The ability to focus the radio waves to a sphere of energy just a cm in diameter means potentially that little energy will be wasted, and it’s safe to use around humans (assuming the receiver itself is a cm thick).

My brain almost exploded when I realized this. While 5G is a big leap in performance from existing 4G technology, it doesn’t provide any fundamentally new capabilities to us. Wireless power, though would be a total game-changer.

And then he looks at the implications. Very plain-English, this:

What would the implications be?

Consumer electronics that never need to be plugged in again – phones, tablets, laptops, televisions could all be powered wirelessly in the home and office.

With transmission towers spaced every kilometer along major highways, electric cars would not need massive, expensive batteries. Everyone could afford a Tesla, and the demand for oil would drop.

With transmitters on a few rooftops in a city, you could have drones and quadcopters delivering groceries and mail, again without heavy batteries that limit their flying time.

You could build an electrical grid that’s a wireless mesh network, especially in developing countries, and have excess power from solar panels beamed to other locations which need it.

There are probably a slew of other ideas that I haven’t even considered – readers, please comment below!

Is there any evidence to substantiate this hypothesis?

Well, as it turns out, Perlman has filed two patents on just these ideas:

System and method for powering vehicle using radio frequency signals and feedback

System and method for powering an aircraft using radio frequency signals and feedback

And if you look at the intro video, there’s a shot of cars driving down a highway connected to pCells, which satisfies the “clue” hint he mentioned in his last slide.

OK, I’m breathless. I hope you stayed with this until now. If this technology works as described, it’s game-changing.

Broadcast power — a dream of scientists and scifi writers since the early 20th century. Are we on the verge? If so, get ready for another world-historical technical innovation.


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Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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20 Responses to “Is wireless power transmission on the horizon?”

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  2. RyansTake says:

    In my town, you can just bring them to the town hall. Same as any town in my state that I’m aware of… You may want to check that out.

  3. RyansTake says:

    Research into new batteries that use less harmful (and more abundant) materials is something that’s starting to pick up, too.

    Conservation + Efficiency + Near 100% Clean Energy Production + Better Batteries + Streaming Power would = a really, really cool world, though. I’d like to live in it.

    Everything but the last one seems very feasible to in our lifetimes — as interesting as streaming power would be and as cool as this blog was reading about it, I’m dubious that this could be pulled off. It’s too theoretical now for me to be nearly as excited.

  4. Finn says:

    It would be good if there was a financial incentive for people to recycle their batteries, so a good business around getting that to happen while making a profit or as a municipal project would be great. But I suspect that the incentive will be too minimal or too high brow (save the planet dummy!) and many Joe/Jane Americans are/will be throwing them in landfills anyway. If we suddenly are awash in battery powered devices in the near future, I think it will be a huge problem down the road, probably for some marginalized folks who live near the toxicity.

  5. Mark_in_MN says:

    I think you’re correct that by the time you got devices efficient enough to work on reasonable amounts of power that could be transmitted wirelessly, they would be be efficient enough that smaller batteries could be used even to provide power for a significantly longer time, or current battery sizes could run a device for a very long time between recharge.

    I don’t think that there are any significant health effects from power lines. The strength of the fields are not that high. (Electric fields directly under high voltage lines, which typically have cleared right of ways, can be enough to cause some shock sensations.) Magnetic fields from power lines are all much lower than the Earth’s magnetic field, and the potential power of EM radiation is quite small. Various appliances in ones house and refrigerator magnets will have stronger magnetic fields. But I would be concerned that wireless power transmission at any distance, needing higher energies and frequencies, may move into the range where effects could be significant.

  6. emjayay says:

    As long as you aren’t directly in the way of an energy beam your head won’t immediately explode.

  7. bejammin075 says:

    Nicola Tesla demonstrated wireless power transmission back around the 1880’s or 1890’s.
    But what I wonder about is how efficient would it be? With peak-oil in the rear view mirror, and peak-coal happening probably right now, and 7+ billion people wanting to be or stay industrialized, very soon we’ll all be facing the reality of a huge and permanent economy-crushing energy shortage.

  8. SkippyFlipjack says:

    I’m sure there’s nothing at all unsafe about this.

  9. Naja pallida says:

    It’s the same here. Most businesses will take an old battery and dispose of it if you buy a new one, but there really isn’t a convenient place to just take old batteries. Once a year they do the hazardous waste disposal drive, which people can bring stuff like that in, but I don’t think much of it gets recycled. It’s more just a way to get hazardous materials out of homes.

  10. BeccaM says:

    Yeah, if there’s one thing missing right now, it’s an organized infrastructure for collecting used-up batteries. Unfortunately, in many parts of the country — including mine — it’s a bear finding anywhere that will take them.

  11. Naja pallida says:

    A good amount of the materials in most types of batteries are recyclable. Which, with any foresight, could create a pretty lucrative business out of collecting the batteries people don’t want anymore.

  12. Finn says:

    Isn’t there an issue of toxicity of batteries in general? If every device is wirelessly powered in the future, that’s a lot of toxic materials in batteries which will eventually be thrown away. Just ‘thinking’ out loud, feel free to correct my thinking if you know better.

  13. Drew2u says:

    How would solar storms affect this kind of power transmission? What about power outages due to natural disasters that would normally take down power lines such as tornadoes or ice storms?
    relevant article:

    edit: “LOL” at Apple + open industry.

  14. Drew2u says:

    Depends on if society will still be around to reach that point. NASA’s pessimistic:

  15. jomicur says:

    Hey, there’s an article about it on a gay website, so it MUST be bad.

  16. Bookbinder says:

    But then impedance.

  17. MyrddinWilt says:

    It all depends on the distance.

    I already have some devices that charge without a wired connection: A toothbrush and the Wiimote controllers.

    Going further away from the mat is possible in theory if you provide a narrowly focused beam. Its less efficient but the amount of power used to actually power a phone is trivial compared to lighting and cooking and the household devices that won’t ever be wireless.

    It is really a group action problem though. It would be really cool if I could go to a conference room and put my laptop down on the table and have it powered by the room. But that can only happen if there is a multi-vendor standard for the power transmission because nobody would deploy infrastructure for just one vendor. And if they could agree on that they could agree on making the Apple MagSafe power connector an open industry wide standard we could all use.

    My MacBook Air 11″ allows me to work for about 6 hours with the WiFi turned on. That has proved to be pretty close to being sufficient for all day conferences and most plane trips.

  18. bkmn says:

    I expect that efficiency of devices will improve far before there is wireless power transmission in general use. Make a device efficient enough and it can run off a battery for a very long time.

    I also have concerns about wireless energy transmission. I don’t live underneath power lines for a reason. I have seen power cables to a house cause tree branches to grow in odd directions and I have concerns about wireless power transmission causing similar issues.

  19. HKAnders says:

    I eagerly await explanations from congressional Republicans, Rush Limbaugh and Americans for Prosperity as to how this would be bad for the world because socialism. Or something.

  20. Timothy Sipples says:

    As I understand it, one major concern is that wireless power transmission simply isn’t as efficient as wired transmission, and maybe it never will be. If it’s less efficient, one needs a greater power input to achieve the same outcome. That isn’t terrific. Especially if you’re trying to move to a carbon-free or at least carbon-reduced future.

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