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Cut the cord: Wireless recharging could become the next big innovation for mobile devices

The new uBeam system of ultrasonic device charging could make all of these cables a thing of the past. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The new uBeam system of ultrasonic device charging could make all of these cables a thing of the past. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Friday, August 8, 2014, 6:02 PM - Tired of being tied down by cords and cables to recharge your devices? Meredith Perry's new uBeam system could be the solution that frees us up from those bonds.

If you happened to be watching The Colbert Report a couple of weeks ago, when Colbert had SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk on the show, then you heard his wish, when Musk asked what technological advancement Colbert wanted to see in the future.

"I wish there weren't any cables," Colbert said. "Not [just] communication, but charging cables as well. That I could just walk into my house and things would charge."

Meredith Perry, uBeam

Colbert's wish mirrors the dreams of the famous 19th-century inventor, Nikola Tesla, who wanted to provide 'wireless power' to the world. Mr. Musk, who has apparently drawn his own inspiration from Tesla, said that he would work on it, but it seems that someone already beat him to the punch.

Meredith Perry, who - up until recently - had aspirations to search the stars for life on other planets, has started up her company uBeam, which seeks to put ultrasonic emitters in businesses, hotels and the like, which will act as a go-between to deliver a constant charge to our devices, no matter where we are.

"This is the only wireless power system that allows you to be on your phone and moving around a room freely while you’re device is charging," she told the New York Times. "It allows for a Wi-Fi-like experience of charging; with everything else you have to be in close range of a transmitter."

The transmitter draws electricity from the power grid, and uses it to emit ultrasonic waves. A receiver, plugged into our device, picks up these waves, and uses them to produce electricity, which is fed into our device's battery.

Credit: uBeam

Not only would this system free us up to be more mobile, as our devices would be charging as we use them, with no cable rooting us to one spot for any length of time, but batteries for our devices wouldn't need to be as big, since we wouldn't need to store as much electricity at once. That would allow for a next-level shift of miniaturization in mobile devices, since coming up with more efficient battery designs is what's holding that up. With this system in place, we wouldn't need to rely on such an advance in the technology to move forward. Furthermore, since the uBeam system essentially converts electricity to sound waves, the signals from the stations could be used to transmit data as well.

The big limitation to this kind of technology is that, unlike radio waves, which have long enough wavelengths to pass through solid objects (like walls), sound waves don't. Loud enough sounds are carried through materials by causing the materials to vibrate, but for something like uBeam, that would causes a severe drop in energy of the soundwaves and very likely the loss of any information the waves were carrying. So, it would be limited to line-of-sight transmission of power, but with enough coverage, that won't be a problem.

“We’re going to sell directly to consumers, and we’ll sell them to restaurant chains and hotels - we are going to saturate the market with uBeam transmitters,” Perry said in the interview. “In addition to your local coffee shop saying it has free Wi-Fi, it will also say it has free uBeam.”

The video below, shot by Engadget at the All Things D Science Fair, in 2011, gives a short preview of the technology:

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