Technological Illiteracy and Wireless Power Transfer

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”
~Carl Sagan

I recently received a request to do a video discussing the technological idiosyncrasies of my novel, As I Walk These Broken Roads.1  One of the major themes of the book is people’s inabilities to think laterally, or to follow logic to its inevitable conclusion.  “How is it that you can have good quality ales in a city, and yet they lack the technology to repair motorcycles?  The two work off of very similar foundations.” That’s true (I assume; I know nothing about brewing – yet!), but that’s also the point.  The post-war apocalyptic world is populated by people who lack curiosity; sure, they might have skills that can be easily transferred to motorcycle repair, building maintenance, electrical grid setup, you name it – but they’d rather rely on exhaustive, brute force to accomplish tasks then spend five minutes thinking of a new solution.

As a friend of mine pointed out, the novel is actually set in the present day.

Case in point: all of the excitement over Wireless Power Transfer. That is, technology that powers your Smart™ Devices without cables!  The future is now!  Give us billions of dollars, investors!  We’re going to revolutionize how the world works!

Only one problem: the whole thing is a crock.

“Does this break the laws of physics? Is it unsafe? The answer is no, the technology does not break the laws of physics…”
~Meredith Perry, CEO of uBeam

It might not break the laws of physics, but that doesn’t make it feasible.

A little bit of my background: one of the many qualifications I received in the military was “Radio Operator” (a course taught by people who – I eventually realized – actually thought that higher frequencies of communication travelled at a greater height off the ground); through this I managed to land a gig working for Bell Mobility’s RF Engineering department; a low-level tech job, but I made the most out of it, sucking up information like a sponge, and using my free time (that is, whenever the computer was processing a simulation) to read through Wikipedia articles, to help understand what was going on with the network, dBs, attenuation, et cetera, et cetera.

Through that, I got a job setting up repeater stations out in the bush; building local internet networks, wired and wireless, and eventually into audio manipulation and film making through my YouTube channel – which shares many of the same properties as RF; in fact, uBeam is designing a device to use ultrasound instead of RF to power the devices.  Waves are waves, after all – that is, until they aren’t.

That said – I barely understand the stuff.  There’s a whole level to it that’s beyond my ken, and I’d need to really brush up on my calculus before I could do anything useful.  I might be able to boost your internet signal with some sheet metal – but beyond that I’m a complete dunce.

But even I know enough to say that this is all a pipe dream.  It’s a parlour trick; a prank that Tesla pulled with some lamps.  It’s nifty, and cool, and oh-so-shiny – but it’s a stupid way to run your local grid.²

As for why it’s a stupid idea – let’s start by discussing decibels (in a very quick and dirty manner).

Decibels are a logarithmic measurement; that is, they go up by factors of ten.  They are not linear – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… – rather, each threshold of measurement increases as 1, 10, 100, 1000, 10000, et cetera.  The decibel is a measurement used to describe that; with things like RF (aka the ‘brightness’ of a transmitter – RF is just light that’s too long and big for our eyes to see) and sound, if you have event A and B, where B sounds or looks to be twice as loud/bright as A, it is actually carrying 10x as much energy.

Most things are logarithmic in nature; they show discrete changes by factors of ten (or two, or three – the point is the factoring, as opposed to the linear, we use ten because it’s the base of our numbering system).  Think population: 70, Hamlet; 700, Village; 7000, Town; 70,000, City; 70,000, Big City; and so forth.  A city has twice as many services as a town, but it requires ten times the population.  Now think about speed; 1 m/s, walking; 3m/s, running; 30 m/s, driving in a car.  Each one feels like a single step up on the scale, but it requires a massively higher commitment of energy.

Next, let’s consider what causes this with RF – the inverse-square law:

630px-Inverse_square_law.svg

Source: Wikipedia Commons

Intensity=1/Distance²

I think that image sums it up nicely; the further away you get from a light source (or a radio antenna), the less energy you receive.  The difference between sniping a target at 100 versus 200 yards isn’t twice as hard – it’s four times as hard.

Now imagine that S is your power transmitter, and your device is one of the squares at 3r; the other 8 squares are nothing but wasted energy, being broadcast into the aether.

Are you starting to see why this technology is a joke?  Why it’s stage magic?  Why it pales in comparison to what we currently have?  Lithium-ion batteries contain a tremendous amount of power (though I still prefer gasoline), and to try and charge them by remote would result in massive waste – and not just massive waste!  Whether you’re using ultrasound or RF, you also get a tremendous amount of heat at the source.

There’s been more than one RF technician that got cooked by invisible beams coming from a radar dish.

We might very well see ‘charging pads’ in the near future, where you toss your phone onto a ‘hot plate’ instead of plugging it in (though even a plugged-in mobile device still has some manoeuvrability); we might even see some fancy installs for cars, automatically charging your phone whenever you’re driving; but the promise of “Charge anywhere, everywhere!” is utterly absurd.

It’s the equivalent of using tanks of compressed air to jet your car down the highway.  Physically impossible?  Not at all.  Practical?  Hardly.

ͼ-Ѻ-ͽ

So that’s why this annoys me on the scientific, rational, engineering level.  I’ll admit, I tend to be a bit choleric – even a bit assburgs and fedora-tipping – when it comes to pseudoscience and bad design.  I know how little I know (any Engineers out there, feel free to correct my bastardizations in the comments), and I can’t stand being lectured by somebody who thinks that “Missing Time” proves that faster-than-light isn’t a physical impossibility.

But that’s not what’s really disturbing about this whole fiasco; what’s truly worrisome is how everybody’s falling for it.

Clint Westwood, over at Single Dude Travel, covers the massive amount of… what?  Corruption?  Idiocy? …behind the current focus on Women! In! Tech!  Every few months it seems as if a new woman CEO of some amazing, revolutionary tech firm – who seldom has an education in the specific technology at hand, but who manages to hire talented male engineers once she’s raised the capital – gets exposed as being a paper tiger, with no product, and no possibility of every bringing something feasible to the marketplace.

Part of this is the ridiculous focus we have on Feminism, and on attempting to get Women! In! Tech! despite the fact that very few women are interested in hashing out these sorts of problems (and those who are, never needed the encouragement in the first place).  But far more concerning to me is the broader strokes.  The profound ignorance of basic physical principles – principles that can likewise be applied to the humanities, to warfare, to the basic common sense of fixing your car – and the predominance of psychopaths and cheap exploiters in our civilization.

Westwood links to a blog by one of the engineers who worked at uBeam and it’s a profound read (I want to write the guy some fan mail, and bemoan my own difficulties in entrepreneurship).  Whenever I complain about the terrible design of Blackberry, of Windows, of the Twitter App, of Facebook shooting itself in the foot by censoring information, and requiring 30% of your processing power just to run a chat window – this is what’s behind it.

Technological, moral, strategic, rational, common sense ignorance!

Feminism is just one head of the hydra.  We’re a civilization of dullards, who are out of touch with reality and God.  That’s why we have this garbage everywhere.

It almost makes you look forward to the upcoming cascade failure.

networkfailure

ͼ-Ѻ-ͽ

1. You should never ask an author to talk about his own work.  It’s like asking a porn addict to masturbate in public – he’s far too happy to do so.  You have been warned.

2. When I’m talking about Wireless Power Transfer, I’m specifically excluding Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower; that was utterly unrelated from the sort of power transfer that we’re talking about, it relied upon ionization of the atmosphere relative to the earth to provide an ‘invisible power grid’ that could be tapped into by anyone, anywhere.  Presumably you’d tap into it with something akin to a lighting rod, and through that – power everything in your house via copper cables.

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Davis M.J. Aurini

Trained as a Historian at McMaster University, and as an Infantry soldier in the Canadian Forces, I'm a Scholar, Author, Film Maker, and a God fearing Catholic, who loves women for their illogical nature.

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14 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hopefully what research into wireless power transfer does is that it reduces the amount of wires required for electrical transfer.

    Having with the nightmarish tangled wires setup. I am hoping for this technology to help us along even though its current promises are a crock of shit.

  2. Great writeup and thanks for the link back. I guess you already saw it because you mentioned Reynold’s blog but Energous is an example of another fraud company trying to do with RF what uBeam tries to do with ultrasound and it’s equally absurd.

    uBeam does [supposedly] have technology to “steer the beam” so the power loss isn’t quite is bad as you described but it is still a woefully inefficient way to transmit energy with a laughably short range.

    Something I didn’t mention but wish I had is how these two ridiculously inefficient products (uBeam, Energous) can get so much positive press and funding in an era of environmentalism and preoccupation with the global warming hoax. I guess what we can conclude here is that promoting females > global warming, environmentalism and the scam to limit CO2. What other conclusion could we draw?

    I just came across another female CEO who is getting press and presumably money for an extremely dubious project, Elizabeth Parrish: http://arstechnica.co.uk/science/2016/04/bioviva-genetic-therapy-life-extension/

    Lastly, the chick you have in your featured image is Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos (another female lead scam), not Meredith Perry, not sure if you meant to do that or not.

  3. One more thing I forgot to mention, what you described above as ‘charging pads’ already exists and has for quite some time. Energizer, among others, have released such products. I am not sure what the efficiency is and certainly there must be some power loss over a wired connection but they do work well if you are willing to lug around the “charging pad” as well as add a special case to your phone that ads bulk and weight. The technology has also been used for at least 30 years for kitchen stoves. It works very well, arguably better than regular resistance heated coils because you can add and remove heat the heat source much faster, closer to but probably not as good as gas. The drawback is you need special pans made of the right type of metal or alloy.

  4. Mike says:

    Good article. Didn’t know you were a radio operator back in the day.

    I always wondered why everyone got so worked up about wireless power transfer. Aside from the inefficiency of it, you end up with a system that is impossible to bill the user for. Anybody wanting to be a free rider can just siphon juice off the airwaves and not pay the power generation company a dime. I suspect that this is why Tesla’s tower got shut down. The power companies didn’t see how they could make money off it.

    As for the charging pads, I believe they all work off induction, not RF. This is how all transformers work, and it can be very efficient because you aren’t radiating waves out into space, rather the alternating electromagnetic field stays local to the device. But this means your source and whatever load you want it to charge needs to be as close as possible to maximize power transfer.

    As a matter of fact, the first pioneers in radio were met with disbelief by all the ‘experts’ of their day, who kept insisting that what was happening was just induction. This is why even after messing around with radio both professionally and as a hobby going on seven years, I shudder to think that there are people in my group of ham radio operators who want me to teach them all I know. The more that I know, the more I find out how much I DON’T know…

  5. Guy says:

    I agreed with most of the article except for invoking the inverse square law. I think that mostly applies to dipole antennas, which at long distance can be modeled as an isotropic antenna. For beamed wireless energy, it would most likely employ antennas with very high directivity to minimize power loss.

  6. Guy,

    The inverse square law most definitely applies to ultrasound: http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/acoustic/invsqs.html (random Google result, see also all the criticisms of uBeam where it’s mentioned as well).

    Did some more reading about induction charging, it definitely is more efficient, probably due to the reasons Mike mentioned, apparently it can be approx 70-90% efficient.

  7. This technological illiteracy isn’t a random occurrence; without starting conspiracy theories, there are quite a few identifiable groups of people who participate in and benefit from this state of affairs. Just off the top of my head:

    “True believers” really think that if they concentrate enough on the whiteness and maleness of Isaac Newton they won’t die when they fall off a cliff, as long as they self-identify as something other than white and male.

    “Dunning-Krugers” consider that anything that isn’t their part of the job, like say engineering and manufacturing, is a trivial point that can be solved in an afternoon, while their part, say choosing the color for the packaging, is a key success factor and must be the most important part of the project. (See: Fontus Water Bottle.)

    “People who love science” (as long as they don’t have to learn any) are always looking for ways to virtue signal their love of science, so anything technological which allows them to pretend they’re at the forefront of technology will be eagerly embraced. More so if the right celebrities, especially sciencey celebrities, are behind it. (See: Solar roadways.)

    “Geek-haters” did poorly in science and math class, and they hate the people who actually understand STEM, so when they see a popular product that only geeks complain about they take the opportunity to attack those who did well in STEM. (See: Triton Artificial Gills.)

    “Early Outs” understand that the product is made of vaporware, hype, and fraud, but they also know that before that’s exposed their share of the company will be sold to the next level of investors so they’ll make a fortune and have no liability, as they will have all sorts of CYA written into the bylaws of the company. (See: Solyndra.)

    “Banksters” know how to pass any losses they might have from buying later into the company to their clients or to taxpayers, so they don’t care about the long-term feasibility of any company as long as they get their fees and carry-over trade gains. (See: dot-com bubble of 2000.)

    Probably a few more. Certainly “patient enemies of ours” would be a possibility, but that would be conspiratorial now…

    Cheers,
    JCS

  8. Guy says:

    Clint, I didn’t mention ultrasound in my comment. I was making a general comment, specifically about electromagnetic radiation, not acoustics. Horn antennas and dipole antennas most certainly have different dB falloff rates. You sacrifice a smaller coverage area for a lower falloff rate.

  9. @Clint
    I originally intended to cover Theranos, that’s when I uploaded the cover photo, but ultimately I decided you did enough of a write up; decided to leave the photo as a bit of a joke.

    One of the big problems with the directional beam is interference. Getting the beam to target your device in the first place is a nightmare (how does it know where your device is? To keep the power loss under 50% you’d need to have pinpoint accuracy, and GPS isn’t going to be sufficient), but when you have multiple devices and multiple transmitters – think Starbucks – you’re going to wind up with a maelstrom of peaks and valleys, as the beams overlap eachother.

    Remember too, that even directional transmitters have bleed off on the sides; the ex-engineer’s blog has a picture describing this, think of a bunch of petals blossoming out from the node, the central petal being the hottest. All of those other petals are going to run over-top of the petals from the other nodes in the coffee house, creating unpredictability, dark spots, and even the occasional unexpected hot spot. Will the device be able to handle double the load for a split second? Quadruple? At what point do we start creating vortexes that are hot enough to microwave a patron’s insides?

    The Wardenclyffe tower would have remained passive until it was tapped into; the beamed energy is active, and a significant percentage of it won’t be reaching the device.

    Induction is another matter, of course, an it’s a pretty cool idea; so long as no load is placed on it, there will be little energy lost. It only costs energy when it’s charging something. The downside is the falloff rate, and it’s ability to disrupt circuitry.

    Devices such as radio, wifi, and bluetooth are an entirely separate matter. They’re essentially flashlights sending out morse code, on a spectrum where there’s very little RF pollution (flashing morse code will work great at night, not so great in the daytime – the frequencies we use for these technologies are relatively quiet, day or night). But these are transferring information, not power. Once you receive the radio signal, you need to pump it through an amplifier for it to be loud enough for you to hear it.

    Related: I once had a mouse whose track-wheel operated by laser, thus it took no force to spin it. At first this surprised me, but if you think for a moment, it’s not the physical force of your finger on the wheel that scrolls down the page, it’s the information it provides (speaking of which, somebody should design a mouse where the physical force of scrolling charges the battery… but that said, the amount of mechanical energy being generated is probably negligible, especially if you were to increase the voltage to the point where it would be able to charge anything).

    These forms of wifi communication are great, and I think there’s a ton of growth potential there, but when it comes to power, wires are inevitable. It’s utterly absurd that people are pumping money into these hopeless ventures instead of ventures with real-world potential. It’s the same sort of attitude that leads to the annoying ‘user friendly’ technology we see everywhere, which denies you access to your vehicle’s engine, and prevents you from being able to fix things yourself.

    About the only use I could envision for uBeams technology is a real-world Sonic Rifle from X-Com 2; that would be kind of cool.

    Also – I would have ballparked induction as being about 80% as efficient as wires, with maybe some ability to refine it up to 90 in some cases. Good to see that my guesstimate had some bearing on reality!

  10. An observation on Theranos: their issue isn’t really technological illiteracy, but outright fraud: they promised a technology improvement on old tests, then used old tests to deliver the results (most of them) to the paying customers, thus currying favor with the investors.

    In other words, like a Ponzi scheme is to finance (using old tech of paying money out of current investors intake to keep up the appearance of new tech, a better investment strategy), Theranos’s tests were to medicine. (They had some new tech for 6% of tests, and that tech didn’t work at all, as evidenced by the recent mass recall of all results.)

  11. Mike says:

    Yeah, there’s a lot of fraud going on out there. People believe what they want to believe though, and these fraudsters know they can just tell people what they want to hear and get their money. It wouldn’t be bad if it was just the gullible being taken, but with modern banks and investment firms using other people’s money, we all suffer. Not to mention all the wealth being wasted on this trickery rather than on R&D for practical technology that would actually move us forward as a civilization.

    I mean seriously, we need something better than smartphones and other such fluff these days. I remember when they were hyping up what would eventually be revealed as the segway. They said it would be great and revolutionize everything. Being young and optimistic (and gullible), I was expecting something great like the steam engine, or the single-phase AC-motor, something great that would drive our civilization to new heights. Instead it was revealed to be some over-priced glorified scooter. Toys are fun and all but not enough to keep civilization going. Especially a civilization running on something finite like fossil fuels.

  12. Ruby says:

    Please explain ‘fedora tipping’. I am not a millennial and my Google search of the term left me none the wiser.

  13. Lee McKinnis says:

    Ruby – fedora tipping referrs to asshole psuedo-intellectuals on the internet who put on airs of being enlightened and knowledgeable people. A lot of them are pushy about atheism, and many of them are STEM majors.

    I gurss fedora tipper is like the stereotype of the rude engineer or the elitist computer hacker.

  1. May 20, 2016

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