No longer bound to a charging plug, the future looks bright

Imagine a lightbulb that doesn't need to stick to the wall to be on... (Reuters)

Imagine a lightbulb that doesn't need to stick to the wall to be on... (Reuters)

Picture the warm glow of an LED lightbulb. Someone is holding it in their hand, walking around a room. The bulb isn’t connected to a plug. But it’s still on.

Scientists at Stanford University in the United States think that this is the next big breakthrough.

Wireless charging is not new. A team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) cracked that technology in 2007. It now comes standard in cellphones and other devices. But this has so far only been for stationary devices and all it has really done is made charging more convenient.

But being able to wirelessly charge something that is moving is a game changer, especially for electric vehicles. The researchers said: “In theory, one could drive for an unlimited amount of time without having to stop to recharge.”

This would involve running electric coils underneath roads, and underneath cars. Both of these coils will be surrounded by magnets, which create an unstable magnetic field when electricity flows through them. That allows electrons to leave one coil, or magnetic field, and jump to a similar one nearby, taking with them electric charge.

Being able to continually charge as you drive will eliminate one of the biggest problems that stands in the way of electric vehicles: range anxiety. The new Tesla Model 3 can do 350km on a single charge, and other car makers are achieving similar distances with their battery technology. But doing that requires a cars to stop for a long time and charge up.

In South Africa, this had meant electric vehicle technology has not left cities. There are only 300 such vehicles in the whole country. Government intends to increase that to three-million by 2050. The Indian government has said only electric vehicles will be sold in the country from 2030.

The market is growing rapidly.

With wireless charging of moving objects, the Stanford researchers said the breakthrough could also profoundly change how manufacturing happens. Now, even in automated factories, robots have to stick to a certain area within the radius of their charging points. With wireless charging conduits under the floor, those robots could now move wherever they needed to.

The same is possible for robots in households and any other areas that they are needed.

At the same time, a lot of research is going into working out how to make things such as roads save the electricity that is generated by people stepping on them, or car wheels spinning along them. All of that is energy that is currently wasted.

Roads of the future will collect all of that energy. In the Netherlands, running and cycling paths have already been built which absorb energy and use it for things such as lighting. This could mean networks of roads that collect their own energy from whatever uses them, and then transfers that energy to cars driving on the road, or to the cellphones of people walking down them.

Those cars will be electric, and smarter and safer because they will be operated by artificial intelligence. This will mean a transport system that looks like the one of today, but much more efficient and built on smart technology. It’s cost will be paid for by the energy saved, and the fact that the system doesn’t need to buy energy. That will in turn mean power stations do not be to be built to supply it.

For now, the Stanford team have made the technology work. But they admit that they still need to “significantly increase” the amount of electricity that they can transfer for it to work on something as energy-hungry as a vehicle.

Sipho Kings

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