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Phone Dead? These Companies Want to Charge It From a Distance

  • Energous, Ossia, WiTricity all aim to become go-to standard
  • Early attempts at wireless charging haven’t hit the mainstream

Energous Corp. has seen its share price more than double this year, largely on the promise of a smartphone future without electrical outlets or charging mats.

San Jose, California-based Energous is one of a handful of companies racing to introduce technologies that may allow our phones, tablets and smartwatches to be powered from across a room -- all at the same time and completely wirelessly. And 2017 may be the year they finally find their way into consumers’ homes.

In the second half of next year, Energous’s technology will be used in a transmitter that can charge devices from three to five feet away using radio waves, according to Chief Executive Officer Steve Rizzone. In 2018, the company hopes to introduce a similar transmitter that can be integrated into devices like flat-screen TVs to juice up gadgets from 15 feet away, Rizzone said in an interview. The company declined to provide details on how much power an Energous device will be able to beam at what distance, or share efficiency data.

Though early wireless charging technologies have been slow to catch on, successful application of so-called Wireless Charging 2.0 would help tech giants and entrepreneurs alike solve the problem of mobility -- devices need long battery life to be useful. It would also disrupt a market dominated by Qi technology, which is built into devices including Samsung’s Galaxy S7 and requires placement of a device on a physical charging pad. According to Grand View Research, the wireless-charging market is expected to grow to $22.5 billion by 2022, up from $1.87 billion in 2014.

Efficiency Issues

“If we are not in the market where the majority of devices have wireless charging within five years, then we’ve done something critically wrong,” Jim McGregor, an analyst at Tirias Research, a high-tech research and advisory firm, said in an interview.

To be sure, these new technologies still have huge hurdles ahead. Efficiency of power transfer decreases as the distance between transmitter and receiver grows, which means batteries take longer to recharge. At a distance of 15 feet, only a fraction of the charge may actually reach the device. Only at a distance of up to about three feet could wireless charging be practical, according to McGregor. Shorter-range charging technologies will be showcased next year at the Consumer Electronics Show, with some expected to pop up in retail stores.

In the next few years, farther-reaching wireless-charging technologies are likely to be used mostly for juicing up small sensors rather than power-hungry smartphones, said David Green, an analyst at IHS Markit.

To make wireless charging a reality, companies including Ossia Inc., Humavox Ltd. and WiTricity Corp. must overcome health and safety concerns. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the wireless industry, still needs to rule that wireless charging at a long distance is safe. Then there is the matter of convincing manufacturers to embrace these technologies -- which range from radio frequency waves to ultrasound to lasers. Decreased efficiency of power transfer across distance must be considered as well.

“It’s kind of a ‘Star Trek’ episode,” McGregor said of wirelessly charging a device across a room. “That might be years away.”

Wireless Wars

Shares of Energous have soared 136 percent this year, and the company doesn’t even have a product using its technology in stores yet. The stock has advanced in part on speculation that the company was working with Apple Inc. on integrating its charging technology in the iPhone.

Energous finds itself in a crowded field of players looking to become the go-to standard for wireless charging in a world still tied down by plug-in charging cords, as well as trying out do technologies like Qi.

“They are kind of sexy, but it’s not a practical reality,” John Perzow, vice president of market development at the Wireless Power Consortium, which promotes Qi, said of distance charging. “They are extremely inefficient.”

That hasn’t delayed roll-outs, even though the products can only charge at short distances.

“It could be 50 to 200 products coming out next year,” Ron Resnick, president of the AirFuel Alliance, said in an interview. AirFuel’s members will be showcasing tablets and other devices with its resonant wireless charging technology, which will allow consumers to charge devices by placing them a couple of book spines away from a pad.

Ossia expects to introduce receivers in early 2018, with devices able to “catch” that power set to come in 2019, according to CEO Didier Le Lannic. The company, which is challenging Energous’s patents, hopes to transmit a few milliwatts to 1 watt of power as far as nine feet for use in mobile and Internet-connected devices like sensors, he said.

“The market will develop similar to Wi-Fi,” Le Lannic said in an interview. “First, commercial and office spaces. In every single office that I know of, we foresee a deployments. Then the consumer market.”

Ossia has raised $51 million to date and is working with an investment banker to raise another $50 million in the next few months, he said.

Technology from another company, WiTricity, will be embedded in a commercially available notebook computer in early 2017, CEO Alex Gruzen said in an interview. The company is working with automakers to wirelessly charge cars from a distance of up to 13.8 inches -- say, from the floor of the garage to the car’s battery. The first cars with this technology will come onto the market at the end of 2017, he said.

“The move to eliminate wires is happening everywhere,” Gruzen said. “I think within five years it just becomes charging.”

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