Thursday, June 7, 2007

No More Power Cords Or Batteries?

I hate wires. Hooking up stereo systems is a bother for me, but I eventually get it right. I recently wired my ceiling fan wrong and had to take it apart again to fix it – not an easy thing given that my ceiling is high (as they tend to be) and I am short. Ever tried to twist together three wires while supporting the weight of a ceiling fan and balancing on a ladder? I cursed like a sailor. Even after I finished, the damned ceiling fan still mysteriously turns on or off on its own, lights included. Some mornings I come into my family room to find the light on and the fan going full speed. I choose to live with it. I prefer to think it’s haunted rather than blame my poor electrical skills.

I include power cords in my hatred. Power cords often aren’t long enough, which offends my sense of freedom. Or if they are long enough, they get in the way, get tangled, or serve as forbidden entertainment for my toddlers. And often you have to have plug adaptors or surge protectors. My house is pretty old, and half of the sockets won’t take the three-pronged (grounded) appliance plugs, which leaves me aggravated when I can’t use the appliance I want. Our bedroom dehumidifier is on a long extension cord that runs out of our bedroom and around the corner to reach a three-prong outlet. It’s a tripping hazard. I hate it. And I can’t afford to have an electrician come and re-wire the house. Given my experience with the ceiling fan, I can say with some confidence that I shouldn’t do it myself. I prefer my house non-flaming.

I also hate batteries. All batteries, from the little button batteries through “coppertops” and rechargeables up to laptop batteries. They’re expensive. Some are heavy. They don’t hold much energy. They don’t last long enough. They contain heavy metals, and thus are pollutants when thrown away. I hate how my old electric razor battery no longer holds a decent charge, forcing me to plug it in to get a somewhat decent shave. Thus I hate both the battery and the power cord. I hate them almost enough to want to go back to the painful, bleeding manual razor and shaving lotion.

So every time I try to envision a bright and beautiful technologically-driven future, I see a house without wires or batteries. Instead, I imagine some central power source which “magically” sends energy through the ether to all the light bulbs, cell phones, can openers, kids toys, and any other electrical device within the house. You never see power cords on Star Trek, do you? Or Star Wars? Or any other sci fi show? Spock never had to plug in his tricorder. Luke didn’t have to recharge his light saber. It’s taken for granted that the power sources are either small and extremely powerful within the devices, or the central power system runs without cords.

Now some researchers have finally started making my dream a reality:
http://www.physorg.com/news100445957.html

A team of physicists from MIT are able to use their device to send energy across a gap of at least seven feet to light a 60W light bulb. You can even obstruct the direct line of sight between the coils at either end of the gap (as you can see in the photo, taken from the above link). They call it "WiTricity" (for wireless electricity). Another name for this is “evanescent wave coupling.” It’s the same technology that powers your sonic toothbrush. To make WiTricity, they used a theory of coupled magnetic resonance, which is explained in that article. Basically, it’s a magnetic wave that interacts very weakly with most objects, including humans, but because the wave emitter and the device resonate at the same magnetic frequency, they interact strongly, allowing energy transfer. The article compares this to an opera singer singing at a note at just the right frequency of a wine glass, causing the glass to shatter: her vocal cords and the glass resonate at the same frequency, causing a power transfer strong enough to vibrate the glass beyond its limits. The authors imagine the technique to be broadly applicable to nearly any small electrical device, including laptops and cell phones, powering all such devices within the confines of a room.

Their work will be reported in the June 7 issue of Science Express, the advance online publication of the journal Science. (HERE is a previous article about their work). Of course, Tesla worked on this very thing, almost a century ago, but apparently this team has made new progress.

And God only knows how the magnetic field will interact with our biology. Are migrating birds passing over your house going to suddenly fly off in random directions? Are the scientists in that picture going to suffer somehow? Heck, that guy in the back is already losing his hair. Will the people in WiTricity homes develop green skin and grow to twice their height, strength, and rage level, a la the Incredible Hulk? I hope not, but then again, it would be a much more exciting world, wouldn't it?

But migrating birds and the Incredible Hulk aside, given this marvelous bit of electrical genius and the current rate of miniaturization, your laptop will soon be as light and slim as a clipboard, your cell phone will be built into your eyeglasses or earrings, and every light in your house will be able to be taken down and carried with you, still shining.

And maybe I won’t have to trip over my damned dehumidifier cord anymore.

2 comments:

Maggie said...

Power cords offend your sense of freedom. That is an awesome line.

Maybe witricity is the answer to why the dinosaurs all died off? Could be cool to try it out though. I could imagine my kitchen in which I could pull out any small appliance and actually be able to use it on any counter, anywhere without the damn cords.

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