Archive

Posts Tagged ‘MIT’

Tesla and wireless electricity – a 157th birthday commemoration

July 10, 2013 2 comments

Who knew the internet was envisioned in 1908 – five years after the Wright Brothers flight and the year New Zealand completed its first North Island end-to-end passenger rail service?

Nikola Tesla holds balls of fire

Nikola Tesla – luminary in all respects

In 1908 the Serbian-American physicist and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla in predicted: “It will be possible for a businessman in New York to dictate instructions, and have them instantly appear in type at his office in London… An instrument not bigger than a watch will enable its bearer to hear anywhere… music or song [or] the speech of a political leader… delivered in some other place, however distant.”

Tesla was definitely a man out of his time – a visionary and inventor in the same league of Da Vinci, and today would be his 157th birthday. As well as envisioning the internet Tesla’s list of inventions is incredible – radio (US Supreme Court recognised his precedence over Marconi in 1943); remote controls; alternating current and the AC motor.

So my post today is in honour of this great man who, like Turing, was treated badly by his time. For more on this there’s a great, vitriolic Oatmeal post on on why Tesla was the greatest geek that ever lived.

Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla holding a gas-filled phosphor-coated light bulb which was illuminated without wires by an electromagnetic field from the “Tesla Coil”.

But while I am in awe of Tesla’s inventions such as AC and radio – it’s his work in wireless electricity that really really spins my wheels and, because it’s his birthday, I wanted to profile that stream of his genius and where it is today. While Tesla achieved fame his inventions never received the backing to achieve their vision. He died on January 7th, 1943 in the Hotel New Yorker, where he had lived for the last ten years of his life.

As I write at my desk my mind is immediately drawn to the web of of wires that powers the six entertainment devices in our living room and the multiple other electrical things around the house. But mainly the constant, half-starved nature of my smartphones that crave electricity on a daily basis like ultra-marathon runners crave carbs. Imagine a world free of wires and in which devices magically power up without ever having to plug in.

Tesla successfully proved wireless electricity in 1891 – the same year he became an American citizen.

At his lab, Tesla produced streams of electricity 135 feet long. People walking along the street observed sparks jumping between their feet and the ground. Electricity sprang from taps when turned on. Light bulbs within 100 feet of the lab glowed even when turned off. For Tesla I would imagine the vision of our world literally wrapped in wire would have been nightmarish.

While Tesla was famously predicting an unprecedented global industrial revolution from wireless electricity in 1906 – in 2013 the focus is more how this technology can address specific commercial and personal painpoints.

A New Zealand company is leading the world in delivering the vision of a wireless electronic future.

PowerbyProxi is a start-up that’s come out of Auckland University’s engineering department and which has taken some ground-breaking wireless power technology innovations and created business and consumer products. They say wireless power today is a proximity based system – to do things efficiently power can be transmitted over a maximum distance of about 8 inches. So customer benefits and value have to be derived from within that fundamental design envelope.

The company was founded in 2006 by Fady Mishriki and Greg Cross – 101 years after Tesla closed up shop and laid off his staff after losing backing for a 187ft tall tower in New York that would transmit both signals and power without wires to any point on the globe.  The huge magnifying transmitter would turn the earth into a gigantic dynamo which would project its electricity in unlimited amounts anywhere in the world. His financial backer, J P Morgan, infamously pulled the plug on this by declaring: “If anyone can draw on the power, where do we put the meter?” (Source – Tesla society biography)

So fast-forward to 2013 and Power By Proxi has invented a way to wirelessly transfer efficient power in the most difficult places: from a miniaturized receiver inside a AA battery to a mission critical solution in the demanding and hostile environment of a wind turbine control system. The company has worked with customers on over 50 real world projects initially focusing on complex industrial applications.

Power by Proxi

But it also has created the first commercial wireless recharging system capable of 3D power transfer, regardless of how the device is positioned in the recharging unit.

In the US in 2006, Marin Soljacic, a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sent wireless electricity across a room to light a 60-watt bulb. Soljacic used electromagnetic induction, but with a twist. By tuning the sending and receiving coils in his electromagnetic field to resonate at the same frequency and engage only at that frequency (the way glass will shatter when struck by sound waves of just the right pitch), the current is focused and bypasses everything else, humans included. Resonant coupling, as Soljacic’s process is known, is far more efficient than Tesla’s attempts, and safer too.

Soljacic has a company called WiTricity, and he can now send 3,000 watts across a room—or a garage, since 3,000 watts can charge an electric car. You can see a compelling demo of wireless electricity by WiTricity in this TED talk.

I find it fascinating that a technology demonstrated over a century ago is now being taken seriously by science and business. And today I salute the genius of the 19th Century-born Nikola Tesla who pioneered what seems like such a 21st Century concept.