If you can imagine a massive, horrifying beast with some 6 million miles of tentacles that costs up to $33 billion to feed and $5 trillion to replace, then you can imagine the U.S. electricity grid.
But it’s a beast that can possibly be vanquished, finally.
How? Magnetic induction and resonant coupling.
Imagine a future where you can charge your electric vehicles while in motion using a charging mechanism built into the road on which it drives. Where the electrical grid is no longer reliant on power lines, utility poles, or expensive transformers and underground cables. A future where power companies stop chopping down trees that threaten nearby power lines.
This might sound like a sci-fi movie, but the future you just imagined is nearly here, in the form of magnetic inductive coupling and resonant coupling.
Magnetic induction, or magnetic inductive coupling, courtesy of Nikola Tesla, is already a mainstay in small-scale technology such as wireless cellphone charging and wireless speakers. Transformers also use this technology, which allows energy to be transferred from one coil to another, but the coils can be only centimeters apart—any further and it won’t work.
Resonant coupling works similarly to magnetic induction, but allows for a greater distance between the two coils.
Naysayers abound, but magnetic induction and resonant coupling is not just possible on a large scale—it’s inevitable. And none too soon, as the requirements for distributing electric power continue to change with the gaining presence of renewable energy sources and increasing fears of grid security and unreliability.
It may seem like a mighty big leap to go from wireless cellphone charging to a wireless power grid, but mankind has been known to make some huge jumps, courtesy of unconventional blue-sky thinkers, MIT grads, and deep-pocketed corporations.
To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that some of the most creative tech ideas have come from our creative visionaries in Hollywood. They’ve generated some spectacular ideas that have forever changed the world. Hollywood has already gone where no man has gone before, and the rest of the world has followed.
Fifty-one years ago, when “Star Trek” burst onto the television scene, minds were blown with the then-silly notion of a handheld computer. At the time, it seemed rather farfetched; the personal computer hadn’t been invented yet, let alone laptops and tablets. But here we are, with iPods and tablets and Chromebooks and smart watches. The sci-fi wonder was several iterations ahead of reality, and now the rest of the world has arrived, albeit lagging by a few decades.
Star Trek also thought up the universal translator, which was probably introduced solely to explain why everyone on the show spoke English even though they were supposed to be from different planets. Regardless of the motive behind this invention, that universal translator—then only a finished product idea that lacked even a hint of how to make it happen—is finally here. We have had Google Translate (granted, it’s not perfect) for quite some time now, but just last month Google announced its Pixel Buds, which can translate 40 languages in real time.
Hollywood’s thought contributions don’t end there. Next on the list is the holodeck. While it first appeared in “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, it was actually thought up in the original series along with all the other cool gizmos, but was never shown on screen. If you’re under the age of 35 and have no idea what a holodeck is, just ask Siri, Bixby, or Alexa (yeah, the talking computer was a Star Trek invention, too) and she’ll explain, perhaps by showing you today’s version of the holodeck: virtual reality goggles.
Other Star Trek high-tech gadgetry also makes the list of up-and-coming reality, and include the communicator badge, which is currently in prototype phase, and the tractor beam, which is in development. And don’t tell your kids just yet, but even the hypospray is here.
And it’s not just Star Trek. Twenty years its junior, the “Back to the Future” franchise conceptualized even more things that were nonexistent then, but real things now. It thought up drones, hands-free gaming, mobile payment technology, hoverboards, biometric devices, wearable technology, video calling, and probably the most relevant for our readers, the DeLorean—a car that can run on garbage and duals as a time machine.
Well, we might not have a car that can run on actual garbage, but eco-friendly hydrogen-powered cars are indeed here. As for the rest of the tech mentioned above…. yeah, we’ve got that. As for the time machine, that’s probably a bit further out.
The present is theirs; the future, for which I really worked, is mine. - Nikola Tesla
It’s not just Hollywood scriptwriters who serve as the artistic muse for MIT’s high-tech hotshots. Wireless electricity was the brainchild of Nikola Tesla, who as early as the 1890s had grand ideas of a global wireless power grid—and some university students now think they’re well on their way to making his vision a reality.
A decade ago, MIT researchers proved that it was indeed possible to wirelessly power a light bulb more than two meters away, and while it’s not exactly the finished product that Nikola Tesla had in mind, he would have been proud; it was the first such feat and a milestone for wireless electricity.
More progress continues to be made. This year, senior study author and professor of electrical engineering Shanhui Fan said in a June interview for Stanford News that they have developed a way to wirelessly charge moving objects—a clear precursor to wirelessly charging not just stationary objects but electric vehicles while in motion. The technology could make alleviate the concerns that currently exist in the automobile marketplace about how far an electric car can travel without a charge—a major hurdle to making EVs more prevalent on the road.
“We still need to significantly increase the amount of electricity being transferred to charge electric cars, but we may not need to push the distance too much more,” Fan said, adding that his hope is that “you’ll be able to charge your electric car while you’re driving down the highway. A coil in the bottom of the vehicle could receive electricity from a series of coils connected to an electric current embedded in the road.”
And this induction system, the “electric road of the future” if you will, is already being tested in France. Carmakers have yet to incorporate into their vehicles the necessary technology that would allow them to top up by pads under the road surfaces, but this technology is already being tried out in a test track near Paris. Full-scale introduction of this tech is reportedly ten years out.
“Maybe 10 years is a good timescale for this technology,” Virginie Maillard, a senior Renault EV engineer said in an interview with Autocar Magazine. “We have to design cars and the road network to accept it.”
Back in 2012, Pike Research acknowledged the progress that had been made, but stated that the technology to replace existing utility poles with wireless power was decades away. But today’s growing fears about grid security and grid reliability may speed along its progression.
United States President Donald Trump designated November 2017 as Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience Month. The Department of Energy approved two transmission projects this year, with the last one gaining approval yesterday: The $1.6 billion Northern Pass Transmission Line project will bring hydropower from America’s northern neighbor, Quebec, by tying the American grid to Canada’s and lowering the carbon footprint in the region.
The regulatory approval of two major transmission projects is a clear sign that the new administration is working to improve the nation’s infrastructure and streamline the federal permitting process, which may mean less regulatory hurdles for grid projects going forward—projects like a wireless grid, for instance.
A truly wireless grid isn’t something we’re likely to see tomorrow, but it’s likely to be a reality someday in the fairly near future, and the power industry from power companies to transformer and power line manufacturers—and everything in between—should at least consider that future.
If Star Trek and other sci-fi ideas are any indicator, we may very well see the beast defeated in our lifetime.