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Wireless Charging Isn’t Magic. Here’s How It Works.

The first time you set your phone on a wireless charger might feel like magic, but it’s a technology that actually goes back 130 years.

You love badass tech. So do we. Let’s nerd out over it together.

Despite its long history, however, this tech is just now becoming ubiquitous. In fact, the wireless power market is expected to exceed $40 billion by 2027, according to Allied Market Research.

So, how does this sci-fi like technology work, and why is it suddenly everywhere?

First, a History

This is a contemporary illustration of Faraday’s magnetic induction experiment, as documented in an electricity textbook from 1892.

Computer History Museum

Wireless charging for smartphones actually isn’t a novel idea. It’s even older than the Ford Model T.

In 1831, the English physicist Michael Faraday first discovered the underlying magnetic and electrical ideas that led to induction charging, which transfers energy wirelessly between two receivers.

He described his experiment, which produced a “current of electricity by ordinary magnets,” in an 1831 series of lectures at the Royal Society in London. Faraday had used a liquid battery to send an electric current through a small coil. Then, when it moved through a larger coil, the magnetic field changed—and created a momentary voltage.

Bolts of electricity discharging in the lab of Nikola Tesla.

John Parrot/Stocktrek ImagesGetty Images

Then, there’s Nikola Tesla, who was hellbent on transmitting electricity without wires. He used Faraday’s underlying principles to first demonstrate the ability to transmit energy through the air. He created a magnetic field between two circuits, a transmitter, and a receiver, in the late 19th century.

If you’re picturing something straight out of The Prestige, you’re not far off.

Head over to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles and you can see this history in action. Tesla’s coil prototype has been on display there since 1937. In the demo, it powers a neon sign without any wires—and that’s exactly what’s going on inside your smartphone when you place it on a wireless charger.

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How Does Wireless Charging Work?

Early scientists may have discovered wireless charging, but they couldn’t find many practical uses for it—at least not at first. Prior to smartphones, smartwatches, and electric vehicles, most applications for wireless charging came down to … electric toothbrushes.

Since the 1990s, oral care companies have been embedding wireless charging units right into electric toothbrush stands. BMW sedans and iPhones rely on the same concept as those toothbrushes to catch some wireless juice: inductive charging.

Inductive charging transfers energy from a charger to a receiver in the back of the phone through electromagnetic induction. Inside the charging pad is an induction coil that creates an oscillating electromagnetic field. The receiver coil in the smartphone helps convert that magnetic field back into electricity to charge up the battery, just like Tesla had done back in the 1800s with his massive transmitter and receiver—only smaller.


➡️ Stuff We Love: The Best Wireless Chargers


The larger the coils are inside the charger, the farther away you can move your phone, laptop, or other device. There are two primary standards for wireless charging, and most smartphones support both:

📲 Wireless Power Consortium’s Qi standard (pronounced “chee”): Primarily used for smartphones, this standard also applies to other consumer devices. There are about 3,700 Qi-certified products on the market at the moment, according to the consortium, and each can support between five and 15 watts.

📲 AirFuel Alliance Resonant standard: The latest standard allows users to charge from 50 millimeters away, meaning there’s no need to perfectly align your device with the charger—giving you freedom to use your phone while it charges. This standard also supports charging multiple items at once, like a smartwatch and a smartphone.

A Look Into the Future

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Wireless charging isn’t widespread in most applications because there are limitations to how far a device can be from the charging pad. But companies like WiTricity, founded by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, are focused on creating electric charging that is actually practical for uses in the real world.

WiTricity’s CEO Morris Kesler told NPR that he imagines a future where wireless charging is pervasive.

“You drive your electric car into a garage, where wireless charging pads are on the floor,” he said. “You open the door to the house and throw your cellphone on the kitchen counter, where wireless charging tech is built into the countertops.”

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Meanwhile, in 2017, scientists at Disney Research showed that open-air wireless charging is possible. That means you can charge your phone while the receiver is across the room, just as your laptop can use a WiFi signal through the air without holding it over the ethernet cable.

Disney calls it “quasistatic cavity resonance” and it allows structures like cabinets to generate quasistatic magnetic fields that “safely deliver kilowatts of power to mobile receivers contained nearly anywhere within.”

Tesla would be proud.

Is Wireless Charging Worth Using?

Wireless charging uses more energy than conventional charging, which means slightly higher electric bills. Given that it’s also less efficient, lost energy mostly takes the form of heat, which can mean extra wear-and-tear on your battery.

That begs the question: what can companies do to mitigate this loss of energy? The Wireless Power Consortium says the 30 percent of energy wasted on average during each charge could amount to less than pennies on your bills.

However, the environmental costs are still mounting. While a smartphone may take only 5 watts to charge, there are about 1 billion phones in use today. If each used some kind of wireless charger, that rises to 1.13 trillion watts of energy, meaning a net waste of 225 billion watts of energy per year.

That wasted energy produces about 100,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution per year, according to data from a 2012 report by the California Energy Commission. It could power 35,000 homes instead.

But hey, at least you’ll never have to hunt for another charging cable again.


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