Your next fridge could charge all your mobile devices

Haier, the world’s largest home appliance maker, plans to embed area wireless chargers

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Your next refrigerator or television may also double as a wireless charger for your mobile devices and wearables.

Home appliance maker Haier announced today that it has signed a joint development agreement with Energous, creator of the WattUp wireless router that sends power in a 15-ft. radius using radio frequency transmissions.

China-based Haier, a $180 billion company, dominates the market in shipped white goods, which include major appliances such as freezers, refrigerators and washing machines, according to research firm Euromonitor. Haier also produces thousands of other products, from televisions and computers to cellphones and robots, all of which could potentially house wireless charging technology.

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Home appliance maker Haier announced today that it has signed a joint development agreement with Energous, creator of the WattUp wireless router that sends power in a 15-ft. radius using radio frequency transmissions.

"WattUp is a natural fit for a wide range of Smart Home products," William Xu, chief marketing office for Haier Wireless, said in a statement. "As Haier Wireless continues to cultivate the wireless power industrial ecosystem in the connected home market, true wire-free charging is a value-add we feel we must aggressively pursue. In our vision, WattUp-embedded Haier Wireless appliances would serve as transmitters for any WattUp-enabled device that is within range."

Energous CEO Stephen Rizzone said the deal with Haier completes a wire-free charging ecosystem for his company. "We now have 10 [joint development agreements] that will see WattUp transmitter and receiver technology embedded in devices such as smartphones, Wi-Fi routers and now a wide range of household appliances," Rizzone said.

In order for WattUp routers to work, receiver technology has to be enabled in the mobile devices that would take on an electrical charge.

George Holmes, Energous' senior vice president of sales and marketing, said the company has deals in the works with several undisclosed equipment makers. The development agreements include cylindrical battery makers, smartphone sleeve and wearable device manufacturers, he said.

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Energous Chief Technology Officer Michael Leabman demonstrates two iPhones being charged at a distance of 15 feet away from the WattUp wire-free router. One phone is charged through a receiver in a base unit, the other through a charging sleeve.

Because of the longer development cycle, Holmes said he doesn't expect smartphone makers to embed the technology in products for at least 12 to 18 months. But Holmes does expect wearable device makers to embed the receivers in products in the next year and toy makers to embed it over the next 24 months.

Holmes expects Haier to roll out wireless charging-enabled appliances within 14 months.

"They're a very aggressive company," Holmes said.

Unlike other white goods makers who can struggle to change manufacturing processes, Haier is able to quickly adapt because its headquarters is located in a manufacurting hub in China with an abundance of resources, according to Kithany.

"It’s a different [business] culture. They can quickly adapt their style of manufacturing to adopt new technogy and start shipping," Kithany said.

While Haier has not yet announced which appliances will get the embedded wireless charging routers, the larger the appliance is, the greater the potential for power output.

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The Energous WattUp mobile device management application.

That's because the larger the wireless charging router, the more antennas it can house  to transmit power, according to Holmes.

Energous' WattUp wireless routers use radio frequency (RF) transmissions to send up to 4 watts of power in a 15-ft. radius. The San Jose-based company raised nearly $25 million when it went public earlier this year.

The WattUp transmitter works much like a wireless router, sending RF signals that can be received by enabled mobile devices such as wearables and mobile phones. A small RF antenna in the form of PCB board, an ASIC and software make up the wireless power receivers.

The Bluetooth wireless communication specification is used between WattUp transmitters and receivers.

Energous' routers are only limited by the number of antennas they have, but the company has chosen to keep the size of its routers at 12-in. x 12-in., allowing them to overlap transmissions to cover areas larger than 15 feet, Holmes said.

"Overlapping circles of coverage gives you a better overall coverage area," Holmes said.

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A WattUp transmitter could be embedded anywhere in a home, car or office and continuously charge any enabled device within a 15-ft. radius.

Within 5 feet of a WattUp wireless router, a mobile device can be charged at the same rate as if it were plugged into a wall socket, Holmes added. 

Energous is currently focused on powering small mobile devices rather than laptops that require charging capacities greater than 4 watts. Energous has also created a mobile app that manages which devices are authorized to connect to a WattUp wireless charging router. Holmes said one key market for the transmitters would be mini-refrigerators for college dorm rooms because students tend to be the biggest users or new mobile tech that requires charging.

A single WattUp transmitter can charge up to 24 devices. The maximum amount of power -- 4 watts -- can only be delivered to four devices simultaneously. So as more enabled and "authorized" devices enter a room, the charge to each device is reduced.

Also, as the distance between transmitter and receiver becomes greater, the power transfer dissipates. For example, a WattUp transmitter can stream 4 watts within a 5-foot radius. At a range of 5-to-10 feet, that power drops to 2 watts per device; at 10-to-15 feet, the router puts out 1 watt per device (4 watts total).

WattUp's RF transmission, which operates at 5.7MHz and 5.8MHz, is referred to in the industry as "far-field" wireless charging. Energous is not the first company to come up with the idea.

Startup uBeam landed $750,000 in seed funding for technology that uses ultrasound waves to transmit electricity to mobile devices. The specifics may differ, but the principle is similar to the approach Energous has taken, according to Ryan Sanderson, an analyst at IHS.

Wireless charging over distance is nothing new, but most other technologies use magnetic resonance for power transfers. For example, WiTricity has been licensing its charging technology for use in appliances and the automotive industry.

Nick Spencer, a senior director at ABI Research, said the primary concern government regulators will likely have with wireless charging technology is that it could potentially waste electricity. On average, 40% of the electricity sent from a utility's grid into a home is wasted as it moves through various transformers. That loss is greater with wireless charging systems.

To date, however, Haier is the largest of appliance makers to move toward embedding the wireless charging technology. With it included in appliances, users of mobile devices and wearables won't have to think about charging cords or pads. The devices will simply begin charging when they're in range of a WattUp router.

"I see huge potential for [Energous' technology], as long as it can be proven to work," said Ryan Sanderson, an analyst at IHS. "We're seeing a huge increase in wearables. And the key thing about wearables is that if you have to take them off every day, it becomes a pain. From a consumer point of view, that will be the one thing that makes or breaks that industry."

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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