Wireless charging to go mainstream in 2010, says maker

Fulton sees wireless charging pads becoming as ubiquitous as electrical plugs

The company behind the new Dell Latitude Z laptop's wireless power charger predicts that its technology will go mainstream next year, with cell phones, MP3 players and Bluetooth headsets featuring the technology at the coming Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

Inductive charging, which creates a small-area electro-magnetic field around devices to recharge their batteries, will be slower to emerge on other computers besides Dell Inc.'s new ultra-thin, ultra-premium business notebook, said Bret Lewis, director of Fulton Innovation LLC in Ada, Mich. He confirmed that the company is talking to a number of other PC manufacturers.

Dell Latitude Z on wireless charging stand
Dell Latitude Z on wireless charging stand

The long-term vision is for wireless charging pads to become as ubiquitous as electrical plugs are today, enabling users to place their cell phone or laptop down on any pad for quick "snack charges," Lewis said.

"You could just charge your device on a pad built into a conference room table, or on a pad you carry [and plug into the wall]," Lewis said.

On the cutting edge of the emerging wireless power industry, Fulton is a subsidiary of Alticor Inc., the parent company of direct-selling company Amway Corp.

Fulton, which employs about 25 scientists at its central Michigan headquarters, created its "eCoupled" technology several years ago as an outgrowth of research into UV (ultraviolet) -based water treatment systems, Lewis said.

Fulton is working closely with electronics maker Texas Instruments, which plans to build the charging coils for devices as well as the charging pads. The coils could be integrated into devices, which Lewis said shouldn't be much more expensive than conventional power chargers once volumes rise. Or they could embedded into the protective nylon or plastic sleeves for cellphones or MP3 players.

Fulton's technology is not used in the Palm Pre smartphone, apparently the first cell phone to offer the option of an inductive charger.

Dell said yesterday that the $199 laptop charging stand add-on kit for its Latitude Z was 70% efficient, making it better than other inductive charging systems.

Fulton's Lewis added to that, saying its technology also compares well with conventional plug-based systems, which he said also run somewhat inefficiently as the electricity travels through its circuits.

Moreover, plug-in chargers continue to seep between 10% and 20% of a device's normal power draw even when the devices are fully charged or turned off, Lewis said.

This well-known "vampire effect" doesn't happen with Fulton's inductive chargers, he said.

The Dell laptop's wireless charger turns off completely when an infrared-based controller signals that the battery is full or the laptop is off, Lewis said. Fulton's chargers can use other "pinging" technology to turn charging systems off.

Taking that into account, Lewis said that Fulton's charging systems today (download white paper) are "already equal or slightly more efficient" than plug-charging systems.

Inductive charging systems also do not hurt electrical components in devices or laptops, Lewis said. Not only is the energy too weak to harm people, he said, it also eliminates the risk of electrical shocks present from cable-based power.

"This is the same technology as your wireless toothbrush. We don't think there are any stray fields that will harm you or your devices," he said.

The company, which is also partnered with Energizer Battery Inc., is a leading member of the Wireless Power Consortium, which is trying to draw up standards for charging low-power devices (8 to 10 watts) such as cellphones.

Lewis acknowledged there is no standards group for medium-power devices such as laptops, or high-power devices such as kitchen appliances or electric cars. The electric cars could eventually be recharged by simply parking them over a special pad-equipped parking space while the driver is at work or a meeting, he said.

He added, however, that the lack of standards bodies could slow the realization of universal, interchangeable wireless power charging stands that are as omnipresent as wall plugs.

About universal power standards quickly emerging, he said that "when we still can't figure out whether to put the gas cap on the right or left side of the car, there's a reason to be skeptical."

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