Power to the People

Ask yourself a question for a moment: How many electrical cords do you use on a daily basis? You charge your cell phone, power your refrigerator, toaster, microwave, television, computer, etc. The infrastructure for electricity delivery in the United States is truly impressive considering how many devices we support on a daily basis. However, as the modern way of life continues to be ever more “on-the-go”, point sources of electrical supply may not be sufficient for consumers that crave longer battery life and less charging.

For true portability and mobility, we all want electronic devices that require little to no time plugged in. Imagine a world where you can walk into a room, and your cell phone or computer is powered without any cords, or any effort on your part. Imagine going on a week long hike and never having to charge your mp3 player in the middle of the woods. Imagine being able to capture energy using the most mundane of sources: a piece of paper or a t-shirt. Everything you are imagining is achievable by today’s technology. Lest this post sound too much like a sales pitch though, suffice it to say that these ideas pose an interesting question regarding our future energy policies and needs.

by Sheila Kennedy, a faculty member of MIT’s School of Design

In the past decade, scientists have developed means for wireless power transmission over several meters, carbon nanotubes spread into paper and cloth that serve as wearable batteries, curtains that shade a room and capture energy from the sun using photovoltaic cells, biomechanical energy harvesters that capture energy from human movement, and the list goes on. While some of these advances are purely novelties at this point in time, it is certain that the future will trend more and more towards mobility and longevity of electrical devices. These inventions represent an innovation in thinking, to the end that one need not bring the device to the wall outlet, but rather bring the wall outlet to the device (in a manner of speaking).

For now, the utility companies still supply the power to the wireless transmitter, and the carbon nanotube paper battery  requires a bath in electrochemicals (manufactured no doubt using utility companies). But if we go down the rabbit hole of speculation: with the advent of more and more technologies each year, if our next generation cell phones are charging themselves from a battery t-shirt, or leeching power from a nearby transmitter, how will the law keep up?

Some homesteads are already generating their own power and selling it back to the grid. What if that same capability were available on a per capita basis? If every person is both using from and supplying energy to “the grid” (if such a thing could be engineered), how can we keep the system fair? If power supply is not consolidated in utility companies, but rather, distributed among the population, will we be able to construct policies to control price, reliability, and equal use? Though none of these products are commercially available, let alone viable, it is also uncertain whether our governmental system and the representatives in control of that system are equipped to handle the complexities involved in such a scheme.  Furthermore, how would the balance of energy concerns (National Security, Environment, and Economics) change? It may a long way off, but as we take energy and power supply back to a home/residence level, and even to a personal level, we find that there is a mix of promise in the potential applications, and uncertainty as to its feasibility and sustainability.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Power to the People

  1. jetengine10

    As a consumer of cell phones, laptops, iPods, etc I would love to have all my devices be chargeable via wireless connections. I wouldn’t be surprised if all of my peers would agree with this as well. Consequently, there will probably be a demand for companies to offer wireless charging devices as well as for places like coffee shops to possibly even offer it to their patrons. The blog here provides an interesting insight into what may happen in the future in which consumers are constantly exchanging not only products and ideas but actual energy. As the above points out, this creates a challenging dilemma in terms of establishing laws and accountability of how and when people use energy.

    My opinion concerning large-scale wireless charging specifically: I hope this situation never has to be discussed even if it would be convenient for me as a consumer. In fact, I would almost hope that it would be made illegal by local and federal governments unless there is a paradigm shift in wireless power beaming technology.

    Wireless power charging is most often accomplished with the use of a magnetic field. Over short distances it is relatively efficient and effective. A great example is the use of rechargeable toothbrushes. It’s a great use of this technology since it eliminates the need to have exposed wire leads in an environment that often includes plenty of water. Unfortunately, magnetic field strength is indirectly proportional to the distance between the objects raised to the third power. What does this mean? It means that if you want to charge something that is a long distance away from the source a great deal of power has to be consumed to create a magnetic field strong enough and big enough to recharge the phone in someone’s pocket while they’re drinking their latte.

    Wires may be inconvenient but if we as society are actually concerned about how much energy we consume the last thing I want to do is create giant magnetic fields.

    http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2009/02/wireless-charge/

    I hope this situation never has to be discussed even if it would be convenient for me as a consumer. In fact, I would almost hope that it would be made illegal by local and federal governments unless there is a paradigm shift in wireless power beaming technology.

    Wireless power charging is most often accomplished with the use of a magnetic field. If you know anything about magnets they can be used to generate a flow of electrons within a coil of wire and consequently deliver energy to the public. If a magnetic field is created and the coil of wire is properly aligned it is possible to create an electric current in a device that is separated from the original source of the magnetic field. Over short distances it is relatively efficient and effective. A great example is for rechargeable toothbrushes. It’s a great use of technology for this consumer product since it eliminates the need to have exposed wire leads in an environment that often includes plenty of water. Unfortunately, magnetic field strength is indirectly proportional to the distance between the objects to the third power. What does this mean? It means that if you want to charge something that is a long distance away from the source a great deal of power has to be consumed to create a magnetic field strong enough and big enough to recharge the phone in your pocket while your drinking your latte. Wires may be inconvenient but if we as society are actually concerned about how much energy we consume the last thing I want to do is create giant magnetic fields.

  2. jetengine10

    Oops. I obviously made a mistake in posting this comment.

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