Lifestyle changes will drive wireless charging growth

Author : Benoit Simoneau

03 April 2017

Can anyone recall the last time their smart phone ran out of power? Whether it was a few days ago or a few months ago, there’s possibly nothing more frustrating in today’s world than running out of juice. Mobile devices and smart phones are increasingly power-hungry, with telephone, email, text and numerous apps draining away battery life ever more. Consumer habits and usage patterns have remained fairly similar thus far: use the phone throughout the day, plug it at night, sleep… and repeat.

Change, however, is afoot: launched eight years ago, the Wireless Power Consortium’s open interface ‘Qi’ standard appears to be coming of age – at last. Qi-compatible devices can be charged by inductive coupling once positioned on a charging pad. Mobile device manufacturers working with the standard include Asus, HTC, Huawei, LG Electronics, Nokia, Samsung and Sony, to name but a few.

Wireless energy transmission promises new ways for people to look at the charging process itself, by entwining itself with everyday life. In a way, it’s not unlike how we keep hydrated: humans will drink every now and again throughout the day, without too much thought going into it. We’re topping up as we go along. It’s a “graze, not gorge” approach.

Companies like Aircharge seek to apply a similar logic to power needs as they lead the deployment of wireless charging stations across thousands of locations worldwide. All that to keep Qi-enabled devices topped up. Aircharge partners include cafés, restaurants and shops, as well as airports, train stations, hotels and gyms. According to the company’s app, London has the world’s highest concentration of charging stations.

The digital crowd is loving it, with consumers placing significant value on wireless charging according to a global survey conducted in November 2016. More than 9 in 10 consumers who have not used wireless charging view it as appealing, with 79% of them expressing intent to purchase a wireless charging product in the near future. No wonder device manufacturers are designing-in this feature into their products.

Today, the Qi standard is the most widely adopted global wireless power standard. It’s a proven, mature standard with backward compatible specifications, allowing designers to future-proof their systems.

This inductive charging technology works with two coils, a transmitter coil and a receiver coil. An alternating current in the transmitter coil will generate a magnetic field that induces a voltage in the receiver coil; that voltage can be used to power a mobile device, or charge a battery for example.

Current specifications allow for Qi products to be certified with power delivery up to 15W; the majority of today’s installed base is 5W. The charge passes between a transmitter and receiver coil placed closely together (below 7 mm). This means the coils will usually be separated only by the outer casing of the two devices involved. Fields used are predominantly non-radiative, near fields.

Could wireless power be the cure to modern day’s “battery anxiety”? Ryan Sanderson, CTO at Aircharge, certainly thinks so: “Honestly, I simply cannot recall having been without a functioning device as of late. Charging stations are everywhere and my device gets charged bit by bit. Somehow I’ve always got power.”

Making wireless charging ubiquitous is the company’s main goal. Publicly available Aircharge wireless charging facilities can be found using the company’s locator App, which helps navigate users to the nearest of over Qi 4,000 wireless charging locations globally.

Ryan Sanderson expects the Aircharge ecosystem to grow further. “Support for Qi wireless charging from major mobile phone and tech manufacturers continues to accelerate. This is driving widespread consumer awareness and adoption, not just in the UK but worldwide.”

This is a high volume electronics market now. According to IHS Markit’s latest figures, the market grew 40% in 2016 over 2015 levels, with greater numbers of consumers experiencing wireless charging for the first time. The same figures forecast over 1 billion receivers shipped per year by 2020, with mobile phones and wearables as the two largest product categories.

Buoyed by those estimates the Wireless Power Consortium hosted a conference and exhibition in London recently, where developers, suppliers and customers saw the latest products and components. An exhibition featured home furniture from IKEA, in-car demo solutions from manufacturer Leggett & Platt, office furniture from UK designer Sixteen3 and restaurant installation examples from McDonald’s – all integrating Qi wireless charging.

Bosch, NXP and Rohm Semiconductor held demonstrations of their latest wireless charging innovations aimed at charging wirelessly higher power devices, such as power tools and notebooks.

The breadth of suppliers involved in this market is vast, typified by the presence at the show of France-based measurement specialist Micropross. The company, acquired by National Instruments in 2015, has developed reliable testing equipment aimed specifically at Qi wireless charging devices. An entire ecosystem is burgeoning and indeed growing around this standard.

Recent news that Apple had joined the consortium should come as no surprise, then. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before interoperability benefits swayed the Californian giant. With charging stations on the rise across the globe, Qi hotspots are set to carry the same appeal as Wi-Fi hotspots had when they appeared some 15 years ago.

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