By Brian Dumaine, senior editor-at-large
FORTUNE -- Backed by the financier J.P. Morgan, Nikola Tesla, the inventor and rival to Thomas Edison, built in the early 1900s the Wardenclyffe Tower, a 187-foot-high structure on Long Island, which he said could transmit electricity wirelessly. The project failed, and Tesla ended up broke. (In an earlier experiment in Colorado, Tesla had wirelessly lit up 200 lamps over a distance of 25 miles, but pedestrians witnessed sparks jumping between their feet and the ground, and electricity flowed from faucets when turned on. Oops.)
Fast-forward over a century, and wireless electricity is finally gaining some traction. More than one hundred companies including startups such as WiTricity and ProxybyPower and giants such as Toyota (TM), Intel (INTC), Samsung, and Foxconn are investing in the technology. The challenge: to take the wires out of the power equation by transmitting electricity through magnetic fields.
When in the atmosphere, electricity exists as a magnetic field. The trick is to capture it safely to recharge devices. Today's electric toothbrushes charge wirelessly -- as power is transmitted through a magnetic field from the charger to the brush. You can already buy wireless recharging pads: Place your cellphone on a pad that's plugged into the wall, and it will recharge. These pads, however, have their limitations -- the cellphone has to be in the right position, and it can take a long time. A New Zealand company called PowerbyProxy has demonstrated a system where you can put multiple cellphones on a pad in any position, and it will charge the devices as fast as a traditional charger. Samsung last month invested $4 million in the company.
The next step: charging without being so tied to a pad. That's the technology a Watertown, Mass., company named WiTricity is developing. Based on work done at MIT, the technology -- on which the company holds exclusive patents -- uses magnetic resonance to move power through the air -- which means electricity can be moved farther distances without a wire. The way it works: Two devices resonate at the same frequency so that the magnetic waves can travel very precisely from one point to another. Plug a resonator into a wall outlet, and a device installed on a cellphone or an electric car receives the power and starts recharging. WiTricity says its system can move an impressive 3,300 watts -- enough to charge an electric car -- with little efficiency loss. Says Eric Giler, the CEO of WiTricity: "We all love electricity and are willing to do almost anything to get it. It will be the last thing to go wireless, but it will go wireless."
Is the process safe? Because electricity moves through the air as magnetic waves that are similar to the earth's magnetic waves, it poses no harm to humans, says Giler. The FCC has set limits for magnetic fields, and WiTricity claims its devices fall well below that threshold. The industry, however, will still face a tough time educating and persuading consumers that these devices are safe.
In recent weeks, Intel and Hon Hai/Foxconn, seeing wireless charging as a possible killer app for electronic devices such as laptops and cellphones, invested in WiTricity. Schlumberger, which is interested in cutting the number of wires in its oil rigs to save maintenance costs, was an early investor, as was Toyota, which is reported to have plans to test a wireless charging station for plug-in cars.
The technology has applications outside the consumer sphere as well. WiTricity is working with the Pentagon to wirelessly charge those robots that disarm bombs. When soldiers try to plug in the robots for recharging, they sometimes get shot by snipers. Doing it wirelessly would reduce the danger. In the medical world, patients with heart pumps have to have electric wires running out of their bodies, which can cause infections. WiTricity is working with heart pump maker Thoratec to create a wireless solution.
How long before this technology becomes a reality? All these applications are in the testing stage, but Giler says that within the next couple of years many of them will be hitting the market.
Until then, where did I put that cellphone charger again?
The co-author of Earth: The Sequel on alternative energy, leadership qualities, and the most important thing he learned in school.
By Chanelle Bessette, reporter
FORTUNE -- Fortune's annual Brainstorm Green conference brings together individuals who strive to build a sustainable future across various industries. In this weekly feature, we shine a spotlight on an attendee to offer their personal insight on business, environmentalism, and entrepreneurship.
As president of the Environmental Defense Fund, Fred MOREOct 8, 2013 10:37 AM ET
The president's major speech notwithstanding, innovations in technology and finance mean Americans can play a greater role in their energy future.
By Andrew L. Shapiro
FORTUNE -- In his highly anticipated speech on climate change Tuesday, President Obama promised to limit power plant emissions, accelerate clean energy deployment, and bolster resilience to extreme weather shocks. These efforts are critically important, yet they will take time to implement and are already facing political MOREJun 26, 2013 11:13 AM ET
At Fortune's Brainstorm Green conference, NRG Energy CEO David Crane unveiled a new product that provides shade and solar energy -- and it doesn't rely on rooftop panels or the electricity grid.
By Brian O'Keefe, assistant managing editor
FORTUNE -- If all goes according to plan for NRG Energy, solar power will soon be the hot new thing in shade.
At Fortune's Brainstorm Green conference this week, the power generation and utility company previewed MOREMay 1, 2013 9:00 AM ET
Masdar, the government's high-concept, energy-efficient desert city, is becoming more than an architect's dream.
By Brian Dumaine, senior editor-at-large
FORTUNE -- The last time we visited Masdar -- the green city being built in the desert sands of Abu Dhabi -- the project wasn't much more than an architect's scheme. Fast-forward and what you'll find is an operating university, the Masdar Institute, and nearby the energy-saving Middle East headquarters tower of Siemens, plus MOREApr 29, 2013 6:47 AM ET
Ethanol could be on its way out this decade thanks to a discovery that makes butanol more cost-effective.
By Jennifer Abbasi
FORTUNE -- In 2007 we reported on biobutanol, a biofuel with the potential to solve many of the problems associated with ethanol. Since then, industry players like BP have been seeking ways to make a cost-efficient transition to the "advanced biofuel," and now a scientific breakthrough might finally make that MOREApr 12, 2013 7:25 AM ET
What are the keys to leveraging alternative sources of energy and moving beyond coal?
By David Whitford, editor-at-large
Bill Weihl, Google's (GOOG) energy czar, suggests two new ideas: Encourage new technology through investments in R&D; and "generate market pull" with consumer incentives plus government procurement mandates. Can we get to low emissions without nuclear? "Probably," says Weihl, "but I hate to take it off the table."
Mike Morris, CEO of American Electric (AEP), one MOREApr 5, 2011 3:47 PM ET
Early-stage green technology companies are taking a page from the biotech playbook: IPO with little or no revenues. So far, it's not working.
A number of tiny, ambitious companies in a promising industry with a very small market are lining up to tap the public markets. It may sound like the biotech IPO boom of the 1990s, but this time it's firms in the clean tech industry filing S-1s faster than MOREShelley DuBois, writer-reporter - Aug 17, 2010 3:00 AM ET
The long-awaited unveiling may have another goal in mind: to fuel investors' appetite for a public offering.
By Paul Keegan, contributor
It was an awesome spectacle as product launches go: Speeches by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Colin Powell, a panel of top executives from Google, eBay, Wal-Mart, FedEx, Coca-Cola, and Cox Enterprises, video messages from Diane Feinstein and Michael Bloomberg, a heart-tugging slide show about saving the planet, and finally, after eight years MOREFeb 25, 2010 12:10 PM ET
Three critical questions Bloom Energy must answer to succeed.
By Paul Keegan, contributor
Now that Bloom Energy has come out of hiding on Fortune.com last Friday and on a recent episode of CBS's "60 Minutes," you'd think we'd all be able to start celebrating the invention of K.R. Sridhar's magic black fuel-cell box. The CEO claims it can provide abundant, cheap, clean electricity that will finally rid us of our dependence on MOREFeb 23, 2010 10:50 AM ET
|2 million Facebook, Gmail and Twitter passwords stolen in massive hack|
|Pentagon to cut jobs, contracts by $1 billion|
|Ron Paul: Bitcoin could 'destroy the dollar'|
|A new normal for government retirees|
|Top 10 U.S. cities for Chinese homebuyers|