Science Channel - InSCIder

11 Jul

Preventing Outages with Wireless Power Transmission

Tree and powerlines down in Bethesda, MD following June 29, 2012 derecho storm CREDIT: woodleywonderworksAre you one of the 3 million people who lost electrical power after a freakish storm battered the East Coast at the end of June? Then you unwillingly bore witness to a peculiar paradox of our 21st Century civilization.

The truth is our cutting-edge "smart" gadgets still rely on a power-transmission system that's basically just a bunch of cables strung along big metal towers and wooden poles. In other words, we still use technology that dates back to the late 1800s. And that aging paradigm, as we saw all too dramatically, is highly vulnerable to powerful storms that knock down trees and the power lines threaded through them. Worse yet, because both summer thunderstorms and winter blizzards are happening more often these days, we're pretty much assured of more and more devastating outages.

That's leaving a lot of people, like CNN commentator David Frum, for example, to wonder: Why can't we just bury all the power cables underground? As Frum points out, cables in Germany are below the surface and protected from storms, and the country's power grids go down an average of just 21 minutes per year. Think of it this way: It would take the average German resident 504 years to experience as much time without power as some Washington DC-area residents who recently lost electricity for the entire week after the storm!

The American utility industry and local governments resist this solution though, saying that it's too expensive. And they're right. According to this industry study, just putting Long Island's power lines underground could cost in the vicinity of $25 billion! Moreover, as the study points out, "undergrounding" doesn't necessarily prevent all storm-related outages, because moisture that gets into the ground can still cause cables to fail, and lightning can still jack up the system's voltage and cause an overload. Also, underground cables can be accidentally cut by road construction crews or by careless homeowners, and increased corrosion means that the cables won't last as long.

All of which leads me to wonder: What if we got rid of power lines altogether?

I'm not the first to think of this, of course. In the late 1800s — about the same time that our fragile system of wires-on-poles was just starting to develop — proto-genius Nikola Tesla came up with what he thought was a more elegant means of power transmission. Tesla envisioned sending juice all over the globe without wires, using the ionosphere, the region of the upper atmosphere where gas molecules are spread so thinly that free electrons can exist for a time before attaching onto a nearby positive ion.

Nikola TeslaWith the help of his friend, architect Stanford White, Tesla erected a transmitting tower in Wardenclyffe, Long Island. He hoped to use the tower to transmit power generated by Niagara Falls to users all over the planet. He also believed it could be used to transmit news, stock market data, private messages and even pictures (basically the equivalent of the Internet today). But he never got to finish developing his system, let alone put it to the test. In 1901, his rival Guglielmo Marconi successfully demonstrated a much cheaper system for transmitting telegraph code across the Atlantic. That, plus the fact that Tesla wanted to give away electricity for free and without metering, ultimately caused Tesla's chief backer, J.P. Morgan, to pull out.

As MIT scientist Ted Giler notes in this 2009 TED talk, researchers recently have riffed on Tesla's notion of wireless electrical transmission. They are using magnetic fields to charge devices over shorter distances — a concept called wireless non-radiative mid-range energy transfer. As Giler points out, it's a more efficient means of transmitting energy than using batteries. Still though, that doesn't solve the problem of how to transmit electrical power over longer distances without wires on poles. To accomplish that, we might have to rebuild Tesla's power tower and give it a try. Here's a 2008 paper by G.E. Leyh and M.D. Kennan, researchers at the Nevada Lightning Laboratory, that explores how Tesla's concept might be updated.

Other futurists have advocated an even more radical notion: using power plants in orbit around the Earth or on the Moon to capture solar energy and transmit it wirelessly via microwaves to users on Earth. Here's a National Space Society article on that idea. Of course, there are a few technical hurdles to be overcome. And you can imagine how people who already fear the government is using microwave weapons to beam thoughts into their brains will react to the notion of utility companies pumping out the same sort of radiation from space. (Here's a blog post I wrote a few years back on the telepathic ray gun conspiracy subculture.)

So what do you think? Is wireless power transmission in our future? Express your opinion below.

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