Soon We'll Be Charging Our Phones with Wi-Fi

November 26, 2015 | Elizabeth Knowles

WThe UW team used ambient signals from this Wi-Fi router to power sensors in a low-resolution camera and other devices.
Photo credit: Dennis Wise/University of Washington

No more fighting over plug space or untangling charging cords

The idea of wireless charging dates back to Nikola Tesla in late 1800s. He based his wireless technology idea on Michael Faraday’s concept of electromagnetic induction and built two large towers that broadcasted current into the air. While there were some problems with his device, his dream of beaming free electricity around the globe lives on. In fact, similar concepts are re-emerging today.

QI wireless charging technology lets you power certain devices through induction by setting them on charging stations. This is how Ikea boasts that they have: “a range of products that make it possible to charge your smartphone, without messy cables. From charging pads to furniture with built-in charging spots, you have a greater choice of where to charge.” However, most devices require a special charging case, which can be quite clunky. And, even though there are no cords involved, the devices must remain in a particular spot while they are charging.

SEE ALSO: In future, the internet could come through your lightbulb

New research done by University of Washington engineers suggests that we could take things one step further. They have developed a new technology that uses Wi-Fi routers to charge devices from a distance.

They aren’t charging anything as power-heavy as a phone just yet, but they have powered a simple temperature sensor, a low-resolution grayscale camera and a charger for a Jawbone activity tracking bracelet from a Wi-Fi router.

Lead author on the paper Vamsi Talla, a UW electrical engineering doctoral student said: "We […] made a system that can co-exist as a Wi-Fi router and a power source — it doesn't degrade the quality of your Wi-Fi signals while it's powering devices."

One future use could be to power small sensors in everyday objects such as cell phones, coffee makers and washing machines and allow those devices to talk to each other. This concept, known as the Internet of things, already exists and has a great need for better charging solutions.

The camera that researchers tested their system with recharged enough to take one picture every 35 minutes from 17 feet away and the wearable fitness tracker charged from zero to 41 percent in 2.5 hours. So, the technology isn’t perfect yet, and it will take time before it becomes a common household charging method, but it is a step in an exciting direction! Popular Science even included the Power Over Wi-Fi (PoWiFi) system in their magazine's annual "Best of What's New" awards.

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