The first wirelessly charging mobile phones were released in the early part of this decade, so why does the technology remain a rarity? Metaboards CEO Nedko Ivanov outlines some of the reasons wireless charging has been slow to take off and provide clues as to how the market might develop in the future.
In January 2009, former PDA manufacturer Palm announced a new smartphone called Palm Pre. Amongst other features the device included the option to purchase a “touchstone” – a device that enabled the Pre to be charged wirelessly. Subsequently wireless charging has become a standard feature on a wide range of mobile devices including smartphones from Nokia, Samsung, Huawei, LG, Motorola and, more recently, Apple. This new technology promises to revolutionise mobile device charging and banish one of the major concerns of smartphone users – running out of battery.
Whilst this technology was new to the smartphone industry in the late noughties, it had been used in other industries for decades.
Almost every electric toothbrush since the 1990s had used wireless charging. In fact, the use of electromagnetic waves to transfer power was first proposed more than 100 years ago, although experiments at the time – including the work of a certain Nikola Tesla – were
almost always unsuccessful.
During the 1970s and 1980s the first applications of inductive (or wireless) charging were created, mostly focussed around electric vehicles, although prototype vehicles were not commercially viable at the time. The real breakthrough in the technology came in the 2000s when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) achieved the transfer of power over a small distance without radiation. This was the birth of the wireless charging market as a commercial opportunity.
On 12 September 2017, Apple announced plans for a wireless charging pad called AirPower which would simultaneously charge an iPhone, Apple headphones and Apple’s smart watch.
Whilst a launch date for the device was not confirmed, Bloomberg News reported in June 2018 that the company was still experiencing technical issues with the product and that it might not ship until September.
When a company with the resources of Apple is still working to finalise a product almost 12 months after its announcement, it shows just how challenging it is to deliver a commercial wireless charging solution.
Nevertheless, several wireless charging devices for smartphones have been released commercially, but to date the technology has not been widely adopted by consumers. There are several reasons for this.
The most significant challenge with wireless power supply to date has been the need to use a dedicated device, with its own power supply, to charge a smartphone.
Whilst this might be suitable as a desk-based solution, one of the most important benefits of wireless charging is to keep a device topped up wherever the user is. Carrying an additional charging plate that is connected to a standard charging cable, to top up power to a device that could simply be charged by connecting it to the cable, is not user friendly.
Other issues also exist. The current generation of wireless chargers need to be very closely aligned with the smartphone they are charging in order to successfully transfer power. Whilst some coffee shop retailers have implemented wireless charging points in store, users need to align their devices precisely, limiting uptake of the technology. Furthermore, only a limited number of smaller devices support wireless charging.
As devices get larger – such as tablets and larger smartphones, it becomes harder to charge them using the current generation of technology. These issues combined have significantly limited the adoption of wireless charging solutions.
A Vision of the Future
This is disappointing. Wireless charging should be simple, adaptable and universal.
Imagine a world where you can safely and effectively charge any non-metallic device by simply placing it on a table or desk with an embedded charging capability. This would effectively remove the need for wires not only for smartphones but for tablets, laptops and potentially any other device. Wireless power would then be as ubiquitous as Wi-Fi for a data connection.
One potential source of such a breakthrough is a new technology called metamaterials. Metamaterials is a new branch of science that uses the manipulation of materials to bend waves and enable the materials to take on new properties they do not have in a natural state.
Metamaterials based wireless chargers could provide the capability to transfer power from an entire surface to any number of electronic devices. Currently this technology has been demonstrated in a laboratory and could deliver commercial applications in the future. This could have significant user value and kick-start the wireless charging market by delivering a far more effective and ubiquitous user experience.
The limitations of charging via a physical connection are significant, particularly in a world where mobility and productivity are increasingly critical. Users rely on electronic devices to remain productive and a reliable and consistent supply of power is essential to this. Wireless charging offers significant benefits to users and society and metamaterials may just hold the key to unlocking this market.