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Sunday, August 2, 2009

Powering LCD screens and cellphones wirelessly

Eric Giler of Witricity demonstrated a wondrous magic trick: the ability to power an LCD screen and three different cellphones using no wires. "Let's face it, wires suck," Giler said at TEDGlobal. "Batteries also suck." The day is coming when Witricity's technology, known as resonant energy, or technologies closely related to it, will allow us to chuck those annoying tethers and cut way back on the 40 million disposable batteries manufactured every year.

Witricity's technology involves running high-frequency, alternating current into one magnetic coil and tuning a nearby coil to the exact same frequency. This allows the coils to couple their magnetic fields and share power. It's not dangerous. Giler has had requests for his technology from all the usual suspects, such as consumer electronics makers, the military and medical devices manufacturers, and he's also had interest from a company that makes electrically heated dog bowls. We don't want a pup to chew into a live wire. That would suck.

Hot Fusion In 25 years

The advent of fusion power has been a long-deferred dream of nuclear physicists, and its potential for limitless energy (the sun is a fusion reactor) has spawned much hype and wackiness. Its potential as a carbon-free source of energy has also brought it into the circle of the climate-anxious. But we're getting closer, and real fusion power has been generated more than a few times in the laboratories. The only problem is that a sustained reaction to produce base-load power requires temperatures in the range of 150 million degrees Fahrenheit.

TED presenter Steve Cowley, a plasma physicist and director of the Culham Science Centre of the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority, says we will have fusion power and he puts its arrival date some time in the 2030s. His is the hot fusion kind; Cowley totally dismissed the fantasies of tabletop cold fusion, which others insist can be feasible.

The attractiveness of hot fusion is that its raw material is the widely abundant lithium, which is used to make the deuterium and tritium atoms that get smashed together at those temperatures. The nice part about putting fusion in our future is that it offers permanent energy security without carbon's ill effects. While we may have only a few hundred years or so left of oil and gas in the Earth, according to Cowley, and only a thousand years of uranium using today's reactor technologies, we have 50 million years of lithium in sea water.

Cowley and his Culham center is a big part of the international research consortium that is aiming at completing the $13 billion experimental thermonuclear reactor in the south of France. Nearer term, the Culham center will once again fire up the JET, or Joint European Torus, its smaller experimental reactor in 2013 and break some more records for heat and power. Its last fusion reaction produced 16 megawatts for about a second, but required more than a gigawatt to do so. Clearly, there's room for improvement, but plasma physicists measure their progress in decades.

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