How wireless electricity is starting to break into the mainstream

Ubiquitous mobile computing is driving a need for wireless power, and companies are racing to bring real products to market

A Tesla Model 3 with an Elix Wireless E8K charger

A Tesla Model 3 with an Elix Wireless E8K charger. (Elix Wireless)

When Tesla Motors announced it would begin shipping its mass-market-priced Model 3 toward the end of 2017, the clock started ticking at Elix Wireless. The Vancouver company aims to have a 7.7-kilowatt wireless electric-vehicle (EV) charging system on the market by then, at a price of US$3,880 per unit.

Elix already has a product undergoing field testing with an RCMP detachment in North Battleford, Sask. It’s a smaller one-kilowatt system for use with gas- and diesel-powered fleet vehicles. North Battleford’s finest spend hours a day parked outside the station with their motors running just to stay warm and charge their gadgets. Having chargers in their parking spot gives the officers comfort and a power supply with the ignition off. “That’s going to lead to a lot of savings in vehicle maintenance and fuel,” says Brice Jamieson, Elix’s director of technology. And it’s just one of the innumerable applications coming to light for battery chargers that don’t have plugs or wires.

Since the days of Nikola Tesla, scientists have experimented with transmitting electricity through the air. It’s taken more than a century to refine the technology, and indeed, wireless power still faces obstacles related to safety, interference, efficiency and range. But those issues are, bit by bit, being overcome. Around 2009, such U.S. startups as Fulton Innovation and WiTricity began licensing technologies with futuristic-sounding names like “inductive coupling” and “magnetic resonance.” All involve an electric current running through a coiled wire transmitter, which produces a localized magnetic field. The field induces a current in a receiver coil placed nearby.

Wireless receivers can be found today in devices such as Samsung Galaxy phones and Apple Watches. In fact, the number of such receivers shipped increased 160% in 2015 to 144 million, according to market research company IHS Inc. “We saw 2015 as the first year wireless charging really broke through to widespread adoption,” says David Green, a research manager for wireless power at IHS. Indeed, companies are starting to see the potential. McDonald’s and Starbucks now offer wireless charging at select outlets; Ikea has begun to sell wireless lamps. Bombardier has a division, Primove, making high-voltage systems for buses and streetcars in Europe.

Consumer demand has been tepid to date, for two reasons. First, there is limited interoperability among the different technologies on the market. If your phone uses the Qi standard, and the café’s charging pad uses the rival PMA, you’re out of luck. Second, wireless chargers compete with a vast infrastructure of electrical wiring. Why pay more for wireless charging when you can just plug things in?

Because plugging things in, just like stopping at a gas station to refuel your car, is an example of humans serving technology’s needs instead of the other way around—and that’s tough to justify in 2016. Furthermore, wireless charging technically requires no jacks, and many devices benefit from being sealed from contamination by water or dust—a fitness tracker you can wear swimming, for instance, or a surgically implanted medical device.

Then there’s the incongruity of tethering hyper-intelligent Internet-of-things-compatible gear to a physical wire in proximity to an outlet. Consider that driverless cars can now take you to your destination, let you out and find a parking spot for themselves. But, Jamieson notes, “the one thing a car can’t do is plug itself in.”

Elix’s edge in this burgeoning market is that while other systems use an electromagnet, its transmitters and receivers use permanent magnets that rotate in tandem to create a uniquely low-frequency magnetic field that doesn’t generate incidental heat and can be scaled. (These characteristics allowed Elix to design a system for buses and trucks that stacks several 10-kilowatt chargers to produce a combined 50 kilowatts or more.)

As electric vehicles gain popularity, such technology could become as ubiquitous as stoplights, with chargers embedded at bus stops and in stop signs or even in roads themselves (the U.K. government is testing charging lanes on highways that would offer electric cars virtually unlimited driving range). Explains Jamieson: “We’re going to get to a point where charging is just something that kind of happens.”