Dear Colleagues

My mailbox buckled under the strain of responses from my discussion on lighting last week. Thank you all for your comments. I have put a selection up onto my blog site.

Don’t forget another in our series of complimentary 45 min. webinars (no sales spiel) entitled: “Major disasters in engineering and technical marketing (and how to avoid them)” on Wed 14th May (details at the bottom of this note).

1.0 Engineers and Techs – Rip up your power cables
You probably sigh, as I often do, when trying to move some piece of equipment which is festooned with cables. And some of us (including my dear wife, I might add), have cursed at 3am with the incessant beeping of the cell phone wanting to be charged. Fortunately the data communications and networking cables are no longer as evident with the advent of wireless, but the power cables and charger are still firmly in place - apart from one’s electric toothbrush which is cleverly charged by inductive coupling. There has been an explosion of cell phones, mp3 players, computers and even household robots (for some of the more daring amongst us), all demanding that we break that last umbilical power cable to make our lives that much more convenient.

The surprising thing in engineering is that, despite the incredible advances in communications and technology, electrical power still cannot be simply beamed through the air - at which point irritating adapters, cables and plugs could be dispensed with.

Transmitting power wirelessly has been used through the centuries - mainly electromagnetic radiation using radio waves. Unfortunately, even when radio waves are tightly focused, they still tend to disperse in all directions and undoubtedly have an adverse impact on humans. Directed electromagnetic radiation, such as with lasers, requires an uninterrupted line of sight and can cause harm to anything erroneously entering its path. As a result this is not viable either.

Initial commercial success, to date, has been in the use of electromagnetic induction; where a coil (contained in a pad) generates a magnetic field when a current flows through it. A mobile device containing a corresponding coil is brought close to the pad and the magnetic field generates a current in the second coil - charging the mobile device’s battery. This was the concept behind Splashpower - a British technology firm who attracted very strong interest from consumer electronic firms in 2004. They unfortunately went bust recently - illustrating that turning the theory into profitable products is somewhat elusive. In Dec. 2008, the Wireless Power Consortium (modeled on Blue Tooth), was formed to promote a common standard for inductive wireless charging; with some big hitter members such as Philips, Sanyo and TI. Although this technology is being commercialized with toothbrushes; commonality is required across different brands of mobile phones (unbelievably when you lose your charger, sometimes it is cheaper to buy a new phone) and digital cameras.

Strong competition between manufacturers of mobile devices is fuelling the introduction of wireless charging. With its latest phone, Palm introduced an optional charging pad - using induction to charge the device when it is placed on the pad. Another offering involves embedding charging pads into kitchen counters to charge wireless blenders and electric knives, for example. Another less whiz bang approach includes creating a charging pad with four small conductive metal studs on the back of the phone - allowing electrical contact at all times with a charging pad.

Other options, with faint hopes of success, include long range transmission of wireless power (similar to the passive power principle in crystal radios); which is reasonably successful over short distances. The intensity of radio waves needed to charge mobile phones, however, is likely to be hazardous to human health. Over distances of 7.5m, Powercast, has created products that can power wireless sensor networks at safe power levels (mW over meters). And there are inevitable “triers” with laser powered devices, although it is difficult to see these as safe options with humans floating around.

I must mention one innovative design from MIT - as I wonder why we didn’t think of this many years ago - called WiTricity (Wireless Electricity) based on using coupled resonant objects. As you may recall from your high school physics (or indeed radio theory – think of a tuned oscillator), two resonant objects exchange energy very efficiently. A great (mechanical) example is a child on a swing - a resonator. Only when she pumps her legs at the right frequency is she able to impart substantial energy. Or the well known example of an opera singer, singing at precisely the right note and shattering only one of 100 wine glasses in a room which has been tuned exactly to the same frequency and has accumulated sufficient energy. The WiTricity project equipment comprises two copper coils – each is a self resonant system. The sending coil "sends out" a magnetic field. This allows for strong interaction between the sending and receiving coils, whilst the interaction with the rest of the environment is weak. Do not mistake this with magnetic induction which is apparently almost a million times less efficient than this coupled resonant approach. They have demonstrated lighting a 60W bulb, from a power source 2meters away, with objects in between. It is exciting to see this coming to commercial fruition.

Some pundits reckon that mobile phone manufacturers use the proprietary power adaptors to lock customers into their products, as it is a hassle to change. But change is slowly coming and one can expect to see inductive power, at the least, but hopefully some more innovative technologies, such as that from MIT, coming to the fore.

Over the ages, the best example of wireless power has to be as William McDonough remarked at the Fortune Brainstorm Conference in 2006:
“Don't get me wrong: I love nuclear energy! It's just that I prefer fusion to fission. And it just so happens that there's an enormous fusion reactor safely banked a few million miles from us. It delivers more than we could ever use in just about 8 minutes. And it is wireless!”

Thanks to the Economist, MIT and ScienceDaily for the background information here.

2. Major Disasters in Engineering and Technical Marketing (and How to Avoid them) webinar on 14th May

This complimentary 45 minute webinar aims to illustrate the perils of marketing so that engineers and technicians can develop greater awareness of the potential for real product disasters. It is to be presented by Terry Cousins, a professional engineer who has set up a remarkable worldwide business designing and manufacturing electronic test equipment.  We look at 5 different, but famous, marketing campaigns from recent history and consider the lessons that can be learnt from them. One of the crucial questions to be considered:- ‘Is innovation enough to guarantee market success?’ This live webinar will provide us with lots to think about in an entertaining format…….. and enable you to boost the sales of your products and services! The registration page is at

Yours in engineering learning