WiTricity Charges Up For Electric Vehicle Market

Imagine that after a long day on the road, you drive your new electric car into your garage, the battery almost drained. But you don’t worry about running a cord to the charging station and plugging into your vehicle—the garage takes care of recharging for you, without you doing a thing. When you leave for work the next morning, there is no charging cord to stow—and therefore no danger you’ll back out of the garage without having remembered to detach it (average bill a few grand for damage to the power unit and your car). You just hit the road again fully charged.

That’s the vision Eric Giler, CEO of Watertown, MA-based WiTricity, will be demonstrating this morning (Boston time) at the First German Electric Vehicle Congress in Bonn, Germany. WiTricity is a 19-month-old MIT spinout that has sparked the imaginations of people around the world with demonstrations of firing up laptop computers and charging cell phones through wireless delivery of power. (For company funding, employee count, patent filings, and other stats see fact box on the last page of this article.) But tomorrow morning, Giler will be presenting his vision of what could become a second major market for WiTricity, after consumer electronics: charging electric vehicles.

“You spend $100,000 on a car, and you have a cord to plug it in,” says Giler a bit disdainfully, speaking of the main electric vehicle on the road today, the Tesla Roadster, which starts at $101,500. “[But] imagine if you can just drive in your garage and your car charges—that’s what we’re doing now.”

Giler will be on stage today demonstrating two configurations for how the electric vehicle charging station of the future might look. One is where you drive into a garage and your car is charged from underneath, via something like a mat on the floor. The other is a wall mounted or upright charging station, where you tool up to the unit and power is transferred between it and the car’s bumper.

Whichever one wins out, and maybe both will, WiTricity calls electric vehicles (EVs) a “zero-billion-dollar market”—meaning sales are essentially nothing right now, but as prices come down and competitors like the planned Chevy Volt and other mass market vehicles hit the road, the market will be huge. And, the company figures, since all EVs will have to charge up in some manner, there should also be a big opportunity awaiting WiTricity’s elegant, easy-to-use solution.

Some quick background here. WiTricity is the fruit of a discovery a few years back by MIT assistant professor of physics Marin Soljačić, who, after being awakened by a cell phone beeping in the night because no one had charged it, realized he might avoid that problem forever if he could find a way to tap wirelessly into the wired electric power already flowing throughout his house and have it charge the cell phone for him.

His answer depends on what’s called highly resonant magnetic coupling. Basically, a specially designed coil (WiTricity’s transmission unit) is connected to a small electronics module that converts the normal 60-cycle alternating current that you’d find in your home or office to a higher frequency and voltage—inducing an oscillating magnetic field around the coil. If a different coil designed to resonate to the same frequency is near enough to the source, power is transferred between the two coils (think opera singer shattering a glass). There’s a lot more to it, of course, which you can read all about here. Soljačić won a MacArthur genius award for the invention last fall.

Chances are you have already heard of this story, as Soljačić and WiTricity have been written up from the New York Times to Scientific American to Sueddeutsche Zeitung. Giler says the technology works from distances of a few centimeters to a few meters and at power levels from a few milliwatts to several kilowatts—and that it is completely safe for people and animals, producing magnetic fields under the limits set by the FCC and in other guidelines. “Safe, efficient power transmission over distance,” is a company mantra.

But let’s steer the conversation away from basic physics back to the electric car, which is the really new thing for WiTricity—and which Giler says hasn’t been publicized before. He revealed his planned Bonn demos to me last Friday when I visited his offices on the second floor of an out-of-the-way brick office building in Watertown, MA—after a tour of two demo rooms showing WiTricity’s technology wirelessly powering up a laptop, a TV, a handheld flashlight, and various cell phones and PDAs.

Giler still thinks consumer electronics will be the first big market for WiTricity, which plans to sell its technology to a range of OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers). But EV charging offers another potentially huge, shall we say, avenue of growth for the firm. And although Giler thinks it is still some five years off, he wants to start working soon with manufacturers to be ready when EVs hit the road in a big way (after all, they’ll have to install capture coils in cars for the system to work). “You gotta be making that investment now,” he says.

So here’s what he’s going to do today. He’ll start with a PowerPoint, the first slide of which—“Electric Cars are BEAUTIFUL”—shows an array of sleek electric cars. The next slide depicts cars in the charging process, cords sprawling across driveways or parking lots. “But are charging cords…?” it asks.

Slide three poses a series of bullet-point questions, such as: Will I forget to plug in? Am I physically capable of plugging in? Do I want to plug-in, in bad weather? Do I want to get my hands & clothes dirty? Do I want my sleek EV to have an ugly extension cord?

The rest of the presentation lays out WiTricity’s history and technology, as well as the history of EV charging. At the end, Giler will demonstrate the company’s two proposed solutions to the EV charging question live. For the first, two coils—the power source and capture coil—will be shown in free space, housed in plastic containers. Each coil will be 30 centimeters in diameter, and they will be set 30 centimeters (about a foot) apart—simulating the charging unit in a garage or parking lot wall and the receiving coil in the bumper of a car. At the flick of a switch, Giler will show on a power meter how electric power is transferred between them.

EVs might be charged wirelessly through a garage floor mat.

EVs might be charged wirelessly through a garage floor mat.

On the other side of the stage, another transmission coil will be sitting on a pedestal (so the audience can see it), with a receiving coil about six inches away. This is designed to simulate the second use case: driving over a mat in a garage and charging from underneath the car, with the capture coil mounted under the vehicle instead of in its bumper. One of the big questions in such a case is whether a car’s metal undercarriage will disrupt the magnetic field, interfering with charging–so Giler and Schatz will place a piece of steel around the capture coil. Then they plan to light up a 100-watt electric light bulb near the capture coil wirelessly to show the steel has no effect on the transmission.

WiTricity director of business development & marketing David Schatz, who will accompany Giler on the trip, says the second scenario is likely to appeal to Americans, many of whom have garages. But in a place like Japan, most people don’t have home garages and think more about charging in a parking lot or institutional setting, in which case a front-charging system might be the way to go. Either way, people will want something that fits with how they use their conventional cars today: “They want vehicles that are inexpensive to drive, reliable, and that they don’t have to do much more with that then are used to doing: drive them in, park them,” he says.

Tomorrow’s demos are a first step in that direction—but a real world prototype is planned. “We’ll be doing this on a vehicle before the end of the year,” says Giler. Car makers and consumers alike ought to get a charge out of that.

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WiTricity Overview

Founded: November 2007
CEO: Eric Giler
Founder/technical visionary: Marin Soljačić, MIT assistant professor of physics
Funding: $4.5 million Series A round led by Stata Venture Partners and Argonaut Private Equity closed in April 2008. Series B round planned in 2009
Employees: 15 (June 2009), including 6 PhDs
Patents: 40 applications filed, a few hundred planned by end of 2009

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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  • Witt

    1. What is the efficiency of charging this way?

    2. Will it work while the vehicle is in motion? If so we could embed the chargers in roads and drastically reduce the size of the battery in EVs, overcoming the major technological hurdle they face.

    3. If it doesn’t work while the vehicle is in motion, this has great potential for en-route charging of transit busses – embed the chargers in the road at bus stops, again reducing the required battery capacity.

  • James Tolley

    Where can I obtain copies of companies press releases, past present and future?