Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Delivering Electricity Like WiFi

Earlier this month, my Globe column profiled WiTricity, a relatively new MIT spin-out that's trying to bring to market a system for wirelessly transmitting electricity (and doing it safely.)

Here's the opening:

    In a brick building in Watertown where men's suits were once made, Eric Giler is running a company that seems to be defying the gravity of the current economic morass.

    Investors call to ask whether they can give him money. Customers request demos and suggest they're ready to commit to partnerships as quickly as possible. At January's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Giler plans to rent a hotel suite in the Venetian (not a highly trafficked booth at the convention center) and schedule meetings selectively.

    His company, WiTricity Corp., is commercializing a breakthrough unveiled last year by MIT researchers: the ability to safely transmit power through thin air. Imagine electricity beamed around rooms the way Wi-Fi provides an Internet link. WiTricity could provide the power to keep a mobile phone's battery perpetually charged or operate a wall-hung flat-screen TV without cords.

Here's the video of CEO Eric Giler giving a demo of the system:

They don't yet have much of a Web site yet, but eventually it will be here.

Mass High Tech supplies more background on Giler; I provided an update on the company back in October.

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Blogger HAL said...

Mr. Kirsner:

How could you write this article without mentioning Nikola Tesla, the electrical engineering genius who actually achieved the wireless transmission of electricity seventy years ago.

These MIT scientists might have made it practical, but they are building on Tesla's work. They really aren't inventors, but innovators. There is nothing wrong with this, but it should be called for what it is.

It's interesting that they use the radio model as their paradigm. Marconi did not invent radio, but he found practical applications where others did not.

This appears to be the same thing.

After working for the greater part of his career in the United States, Tesla died, during WW2, in his native Croatia. Working for Westinghouse, Tesla invented alternating current, three-phase power and the parallel wiring system. While Thomas Edison advocated direct current, Tesla's practical applications in alternating current became standard. Every house and utility pole in the world is wired to Tesla's design.

Moving to New Mexico, Tesla became something of a "mad scientist," experimenting in wireless power transmission. With inexplicable electrical events happening around his laboratory, he became a legend.

In Croatia, after his death, OSS agents captured his files. Much of this material is still classified by the government. In many ways, Tesla anticipated what we now call "star wars" technology, power transmission over distance, which can actually destroy objects.

It is thoughtless these would-be inventors would not recall Tesla's work. It diminishes their achievement in my opinion.

I realize you are a reporter, not a physicist, but a little background to your subject would have made the article so much more credible.

Nova, the award-winning PBS series, devoted a show to Tesla and the transmission of electrical energy without wire. That should have been the program on the television during their demonstration.

December 2, 2008 5:21 PM  
Anonymous Dave said...

Mr. Kirsner,

I suspect that the only thing that distinguishes Soljacic's work from the prior art is a large dose of MediaLab-style hype. Please try this out on a few physicists who don't have money in this game. Ask what they think of Soljacic's new tunneling technology.

A further guess: The reason this has caught fire is that it has multiple resonances with other current topics. Wireless devices of all sorts; WiFi; energy concerns; various microwave & IR power beaming proposals; radiation safety. You go on to help them associate their work with the economic collapse, flat screen TV's, laptops, opera singers, and plug-in hybrids.

Resonantly coupled power transmission is an old and obviously useful idea. For example, it's been used to charge pacemaker batteries for years. The conventional wisdom on the technology's limitations is encapsulated in Powercast's mantra: "milliWatts over meters, Watts over centimeters". To which you might add kiloWatts over millimeters. Does Soljacic have anything that goes further than this?

December 2, 2008 7:35 PM  
Blogger zencuke said...

Scott, You asked:

> But if Tesla really solved this problem, why isn't there wireless electricity in every home today?

That's because Tesla didn't really solve the problem. He used thousands of watts to light up a ten watt light bulb. That's not a useful solution. It's an expensive party trick. WiTricity is using resonant coupling which is a little more efficient but not enough so to make it widely useful. WiTricity founders didn't even invent that although you would never guess it from your article. They didn't even invent the idea of using it to charge batteries. The pacemaker battery charger beat them to it by quite a ways.

The other posters said it better than I could. It is difficult to figure out just what this company is doing that is new technically. That's probably because there is nothing to figure out. Their biggest product seems to be hype. Unless they are changing the laws of physics what they are selling is a highly wasteful way of transmitting energy. Apparently WiTricity's idea is that in certain low power applications the waste of electricity (and the cost of the device itself) will be made up by the convenience or cuteness of doing it without wires.

I can just imagine a Sloan School MBA class considering this. "We've got a way to transmit electricity. The problem is that it doesn't work very well. It is massively wasteful. Homework for tonight, build a business plan around a use where the convenience of not having wires trumps the problem of waste. The pacemaker battery charger is one existing example. Think of others."

The cleverist thing they have done is to get journalists like you to write non-critical fluff articles about their company.

December 2, 2008 11:22 PM  
Blogger G-Fav said...

Did all three commenters read the Annals of Physics theory paper that explains the idea? Does it change your impression about the product?


December 3, 2008 10:15 AM  
Blogger Scott Kirsner said...

HAL - Not mentioning Tesla was my omission, not the company's. In fact, both Tesla and Marin Soljacic are Croatian!

Gregg - Thanks for the pointed to that paper!


December 3, 2008 8:07 PM  
Anonymous creativlyinsain@hotmail.com said...


January 7, 2009 5:32 PM  

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