Power play: Wireless charging at a distance arrives

Someday soon, your parking space could charge your car

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WiTricity's main competitors are companies such as Duracell, with its Powermat technology, as well as products that carry the relatively new Qi certification. While Qi products are limited to wireless power pads and near-proximity resonance charging, they do allow multiple devices to be charged on a pad at the same time, regardless of positioning.

For example, Qi-certified wireless charging vendor Fulton Innovation has power pads that accept up to three devices anywhere on a charging pad using magnetic inductive technology.

"And, I have to place a device very precisely on a charging pad. If it's off by 5 millimeters, it doesn't work," Schatz said, referring to Qi-standard products.

The Qi (pronounced "chee") standard was developed by the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC). Qi, which enables inductive or pad-style charging and short-distance (1.5cm or less) magnetic resonance charging, is widely supported by more than 120 companies who've been developing certified products. The list reads like a who's who of electronics, from LG Electronics and Sony Corp. to Nokia and Verizon Wireless.

Qi board
A Qi-standard wireless charging chipset by Texas Instruments that would be embedded in a mobile device. Note the same type of copper coil that's used in all wireless charging systems.

Schatz believes Qi-certified products will not catch on because there's little advantage to charging a smartphone or other mobile devices on a pad or over miniscule distances. "They've been trying to push that technology for a few years," he said. "Go to a store and buy a charging pad, and you'll see that it's not really all that useful."

But Qi is not the only wireless charging specification out there.

The Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP), backed by Qualcomm and Samsung, this week said its technical working committee has approved a more flexible wireless power specification that will allow consumers to charge their mobile devices on a variety of compatible surfaces using inductive and short-distance resonance wireless charging.

A4WP claims the specification will make it easier to charge electrical devices embedded in furniture, machines and vehicles. The technology comes from Qualcomm's acquisition earlier this year of a company named WiPower. WiPower claims its wireless charging has a longer range than Qi: up to 45mm, or about 1.7 inches.

The Qi standard wireless AC transmits to a device at a distance ranging from 5mm to 40mm (about 1.5 inches) from the power source.

Yet another wireless charging vendor, New Zealand-based PowerbyProxi, today announced it acquired the key wireless power patent portfolio from the University of Auckland via its commercialization company UniServices. The portfolio includes 122 patents for portable consumer electronics devices, semiconductors and batteries.

PowerbyProxi's co-founder and CEO Greg Cross said devices using the Qi specification require precise placement on a charging pad, while his company's "loosely-coupled" wireless technology allows multiple devices to be recharged at the same time, regardless of the position on an induction pad.

Unlike other wireless charging vendors, PowerbyProxi got its start four years ago selling large-scale systems for commercial industries such as construction, telecommunications, defense and agriculture. For example, one product is a wireless control system for wind turbines. "As we've started to work with market analysts over the last couple of years, there's an increasing recognition that the potential size of the industrial components market is at least as large as products in the consumer electronics market," Cross said.

PowerbyProxi is now focusing efforts on the retail market with miniaturized devices that fit inside a AA battery.

In contrast, WiTricity's technology offers charging from feet away.

To date, few companies have offered wireless charging at distance. In 2008, Intel Labs demonstrated chip technology that could wirelessly charge mobile devices. Intel's Wireless Charging Technology (WCT) would let a user charge a smartphone wirelessly from a notebook PC by placing it right next to the device. Last month, Intel announced a partnership with Integrated Device Technology Corp. (IDT) to develop chipsets for WCT products. Products using the chipsets are expected to arrive in 2013, Intel said.

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