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Disney Research Wants To Make Wireless Power As Ubiquitous As Wi-Fi

Forget power cords. What if we could charge our devices as seamlessly as we transmit data through the air?

Tucked away within the Disney Research headquarters in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, there is a small metallic room with some seemingly magical capabilities. By pressing a button on a computer just outside of the door, wireless fans, wireless lamps, and even a cell phone all spring to life. Those devices don’t need to worry about losing steam—electromagnetic currents coursing through the walls are wirelessly transmitting enough power to keep them fully charged, without ever needing a cord or outlet.

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The room is part of a research project that the company just released that seeks to make transmitting wireless power as ubiquitous as the transmitting of data. This could potentially mean that charging your cell phone or laptop wirelessly would be as simple, ambient, and unobtrusive as getting Wi-Fi from a router. Imagine if instead of having to remember to charge your phone every night, it would charge automatically as soon as you walked into your house. While there’s still a ways to go before that scenario is a reality for the average consumer, a paper the researchers published in Plos One shows that they’ve cleared the first steps to getting there.

According to Disney Research, this is not a new idea. At the turn of the 20th century, Nikola Tesla wanted to make it possible to tap into wireless power at any moment, anywhere on the planet. “How he wanted to do that was [to] set up a standing electromagnetic wave that would reverberate between the ionosphere and the ground and travel around the world,” associate lab director Alanson Sample says in a video on the project. Tesla had already demonstrated how power could be transferred within a smaller space, such as a room, using his famed Tesla coil. Scaling that up to the entire world, however, brought up the potentially hazardous effects of exposure to large electric fields—and the grand idea was never realized.

Which brings up the question: How is Disney Research’s self-charging room safe? Disney designed the room using a concept called quasistatic cavity resonance (QSCR), which is best understood by first considering two different scenarios of electrical transfer. The first is the method used for radio communication, which couples electric and magnetic fields that can travel over long distances. The reason this method hasn’t seen much use outside of radio is because it’s only safe to deliver low levels of electromagnetic power over large distances like that. The other way electricity is frequently transferred is through devices like inductive charging cradles (like the one that holds your electronic toothbrush) or wireless charging pads, which decouple the magnetic fields from the potentially harmful electric fields. That’s only possible, though, when the power is traveling a very short distance.

Disney Research essentially found a happy medium between those two scenarios. The solution? Outfitting an entire room with aluminum panels—walls, ceiling, and floor. The rectangular room, which the researchers call the “metallic chamber,” has a copper pipe in the center of the room that holds a set of capacitors. While electromagnetic currents continuously flow through the metallic walls floor and ceiling, the capacitors make it possible to only release the magnetic fields into the center of the room by in turn isolating the harmful electric fields. This allows for power that is strong enough to charge multiple devices, and the researchers claim it isn’t harmful to our health.

At this stage, however, there’s one major caveat: These devices have to be oriented perpendicular to the pole for the setup to work, based on the way the magnetic fields circulate around the pole. These devices all use flat coils, which means they can only pick up the magnetic currents from one direction. As an experiment, the researchers designed a wireless light-up sphere that uses three coils placed in various directions so that it will work no matter the orientation. Sample told Co.Design that they also designed a case for a cell phone that is able to pick up the currents from any direction. Right now, the case is bulky (you can catch it in the video), but the researchers believe they can get it down to the standard size of other wireless charging cases on the market.

That said, the project still has a ways to go before it can come to market. Still, quirks like orientation and designing sleeker receivers aren’t difficult problems to solve. And while it’s hard to imagine people retrofitting their living rooms with aluminum panels and a central copper pole just to be able to toss their power cords, applying this technology to the industrial sector could be a boon. Imagine how useful something like this would be for Amazon’s automated shipping warehouses, where fleets of Kiva robots make up an ultra-efficient assembly line. The mobile Kiva robots are battery-powered and need to recharge for five minutes every hour. That could be time saved if the warehouse walls were discretely powering the robots as they go.

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This is exactly what Disney Research has in mind as it continues to experiment with this concept. “In this work, we’ve demonstrated room-scale wireless power, but there’s no reason we couldn’t scale this down to the size of a toy chest or up to the size of a warehouse,” says Sample in the video. According to the lab’s simulations, the quasi-static cavity they’ve invented—this habitable charged metallic structure—can transmit up to 1.9 kilowatts of power while still meeting federal safety regulations. That’s enough to power an entire home or small commercial building.

If you’re the type who needs your devices to always be powered up, perhaps now’s the time to start matching your drapes to aluminum.

Mark Wilson contributed reporting.

[All Images: courtesy of Disney Research]

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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