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16 June 2014

Universities advance Tesla’s wireless energy dream

Global University Venturing editor Gregg Bayes-Brown takes a closer look at how universities are making wireless energy transfer a reality, and potential applications for the new technology with roots over a century old.

Author: Gregg Bayes-Brown, editor

When Nikola Tesla, renowned inventor and contributor to the design of alternating current power systems, first demonstrated wireless energy transfer (WET) in 1891, he probably didn’t expect that it would take over a century for the idea to catch on. In fact, by the time of his death in 1943, Tesla undoubtedly suspected that it would never catch on, having been bankrupted and labelled a mad scientist in the pursuit of developing WET and other technologies.

It wouldn’t be until the turn of the millennium that WET began building steam once again, this time at university campuses around the world. Following some initial research by professor Shu Yuen Ron Hui of Hong Kong University, WET really began to come into its own in 2007. That year, professor Marin Soljačić and his assistants at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) succeeded in turning on a 60W light bulb at a distance of two metres with 40% efficiency in the energy transfer in a project called Witricity.

Soljačić’s work led to the development of Witricity as a fully-fledged spin-out of MIT which launched the same year. Since then, the company has quickly developed its technology to be used in a number of applications in consumer electronics, automotive, industrial, medical, and military sectors. It is now offering a range of prototype models and development kits for interested parties, and has signed numerous licensees, with the two most notable publicly announced companies being multinational electronics firm TDK and car manufacturer Toyota, which also made an investment into the company alongside private corporate investors for an unspecified sum in the seven-figure dollar range. Witricity also completed a $25m venture round late last year, bringing its total venture investment to over $45m.

The rise of Witricity couldn’t have come at a better time for the company. Driven by the flexibility of the technology to get into such a diverse range of sectors, the global market for WET technologies is estimated to increase by 86.5% annually, and is predicted to be worth $4.5bn globally by 2016.

One area demonstrating particularly keen interest in the technology is the automotive sector. While tackling climate change should be front and forefront when considering a mode of transport, due to limitations and perceived inconveniences, electric cars are yet to receive a unanimous stamp of approval from the general public. WET could go a long way to support the roll out of electric cars. First, a car could be charged just be parking it in proximity to a charging point, such as within a garage or potentially just near the owner’s house. Second, it should be feasible to charge cars remotely whilst on the move if the demand for such infrastructure was presented, thus negating any need to stop at the petrol garage.

Car manufacturers are becoming more open to this vision of the future, and several have been looking to get involved with Witricity to flesh out the idea. Along with Toyota, both Audi and Mitsubishi have signed deals with the MIT company to further explore the idea of wireless charging for electric cars produced by the manufacturers.

Over in the UK, Imperial College London (ICL) have recently partnered with cleantech automotive firm Drayson Technologies, which holds the world land speed record for a wirelessly-charged electric race car, to form Drayson Wireless. Based on ICL intellectual property, the new business will look to rapidly develop wireless technologies with a view to bringing them into the automotive market. Paul Drayson, chairman & CEO of Drayson Technologies said: “Over recent years we have seen a revolution in the way wireless technology has transformed communications, making smartphones and social media part of our everyday lives. The same is about to happen to energy and Drayson Wireless aims to be at the centre of this next revolution.”

Consumer electronics is another obvious area for WET. A common gripe consumers have had since the launch of the Walkman and Gameboy up to today’s range of tablets and smartphones has been battery power. WET offers the opportunity to power such portable electronics by simply walking into a WET-enabled room. It also allows for general household electronics to be powered remotely, meaning the effect of mounting a flatscreen on the wall won’t be ruined by a trail of wires, and the backend of desktop computers start to become a lot less like a jungle of leads and cables. Implementing such technologies in today’s gadgets would offer any manufacturer a commanding edge over rivals, and was the motivation behind TDK’s interest in Witricity.

However, Witricity and TDK aren’t without rivals. Auckland University spin-out Powerbyproxi have been developing WET technologies similar to MIT, and have managed to attract the attention of Samsung in the process. On the back of a $4m investment by Samsung Ventures into Powerbyproxi’s $9m series C, Samsung’s first investment into WET, the two have entered into a strategic partnership. Samsung seems keen to see where WET can fit in with its product portfolio, with Michael Pachos, senior investment manager at Samsung Ventures America, stating: “We believe that wireless power transfer is going to significantly change the way consumers use and interact with their devices at home and on the go.”

If Samsung’s partnership and eventual acquisition of organic light-emitting diode manufacturer and Dresden University spin-out Novaled is anything to go by, Powerbyproxi can expect to have substantial backing in its development as Samsung begins to integrate WET into its electronics.

Powerbyproxi is also taking a much more narrow focus on where it can deploy WET than its US-based peer. Aside from consumer electronics, Powerbyproxi’s only other focus is on industrial sectors, with potential applications in construction, energy, and telecommunications. Powerbyproxi’s various products offer solutions to numerous issues, such as using electricity in dangerous or otherwise cluttered environments, providing energy for hard to reach areas, and powering mobile units such as forklift trucks, cranes, and the like. Both Powerbyproxi and Witricity have also included military and aerospace sectors as potential other areas which could utilise the technology.

Potentially one of the biggest game changers WET offers is in the healthcare sector, particularly in implants, prosthetics, and artificial organs. Currently, artificial hearts are still very much in the formative stages, and require recharging from an external battery pack placed directly onto the skin. However, with WET, a heart or similar device could be recharged in much the same way WET can charge a phone or a car. With heart transplant demand severe and the dependency on drugs to stop a patient’s body from rejecting a donor organ – a problem not shared with bionic counterparts – WET could be the missing piece of the puzzle to save millions of lives from heart failure in the long term.

To this end, Witricity have entered into a technology development agreement with Thoratec, a medtech firm specialising in mechanical circulatory support therapies. The company is providing funding to Witricity to assist in the development of HeartMate II and future heart pump products, and have already demonstrated the technology in operation.

There are also other applications in health too, such as implantable therapies which currently require substantial power to run which are currently impractical as it would require constantly being wired to an electricity source, or diagnostic and other medical equipment within a hospital.

In short, WET, driven by university spin-outs, has the potential to create a cleaner automotive industry and cut back on carbon output, create more reliable and accessible electronics, and to literally save lives. The lights may have turned off for Tesla before he got to see the work he began in 1891 come to fruition, but should WET become fully integrated with our daily lives, his legacy will become truly electrifying.

Copyright Mawsonia Limited 2010. Please don´t cut articles from www.globaluniversityventuring.com or the PDF and redistribute by email or post to the web without written permission.

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