A hundred years ago, Nikola Tesla dreamt of free electricity for everyone. Opposing centralized, highly polluting coal-fired power plants, the influential inventor imagined a system that would generate limitless power by harvesting the Earth’s “fluid electrical charges.”
He saw the extraction, transportation, and burning of fossil fuels as a sinful waste and envisioned wireless electric power networks that would deliver free energy to every single human being on Earth.
For Tesla, the coal-based model was perpetrated by a group of “Ignorant, unimaginative people, consumed by self-interest.” Now, as oil and gas companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars on climate change denial efforts, the prophetic quality of Tesla’s vision has become apparent.
The computers of the future will be tiny and will harvest their own energy. Devices powered by photovoltaic panels are already on the market, and a battery-free world is just around the corner. The new ferroelectric RAM is more durable and requires very little power to work. Sooner than later, we won´t need to connect our devices to a power source.
New technology co-developed by a Dutch scholar, Jasper de Winkel, has been able to power a Nintendo Game boy with 11.5 milliwatts of energy, about 100 times less than an ordinary cell phone.
The next generation of supercomputers will harvest energy from their surroundings. They will not need to reboot and will be perpetually on.
The wireless power network Tesla dreamed of is already a reality. A company founded by University of Washington scholars, Jeeva Wireless, has raised millions of dollars to develop battery-free, disposable sensors. Jeeva’s technology enables small electronics to be powered wirelessly from radio, television, WiFi signal, and cell phone signals.
Jeeva has received a grant to implement the technology at hospitals and health clinics “in the form of inventory intelligence systems for fast-moving medical supplies such as boxes of disposable gloves, masks, tubing, and syringes. Jeeva's technology will help track location, usage state, expiration date, and other parameters of inventory items.” The applications of ‘backscattering’ passive radio networks are seemingly endless.
UW professor Joshua R. Smith and his team have shown that it is possible to harvest energy from the constant flux of radio waves in our environment and use it to power sensors and computers. Smith’s lab has successfully used radio waves to power a battery-free digicam wirelessly, among other remarkable achievements. According to the scientist, cell phones may continue to have batteries, but they will still offer basic functions when the battery runs out, thanks to energy harvesting.
Jeeva co-founder Shyam Gollakota once told Geekwire, “I want to create a future where the energy consumption of providing internet connectivity is negligible, and we can design computers that can compute, interact and communicate without worrying about power consumption. My goal is to build the technologies that will go into every one of the next billion internet devices, and I co-founded Jeeva Wireless to make this happen.”
All over the world, researchers are working on technology that will enable us to harvest energy from anything from physique warmth to microbes. Jeeva Wireless has announced it will commercialize a chip featuring its proprietary technology in 2021.
Black Hole Power
Some energy harvesting methods promise to be much more spectacular. At Columbia, a team of researchers envisions powering the entire planet with the energy of a black hole.
The particles surrounding a black hole are highly energetic and carry a magnetic field. “When magnetic field lines disconnect and reconnect,” Columbia researcher Luca Comisso explains, “they can accelerate plasma particles to negative energies, and large amounts of black hole energy can be extracted.” In the future, he argues, this could be used to power an entire civilization.
“It is like a person could lose weight by eating candy with negative calories,” Comisso explains. “This might sound weird, but it can happen in a region called the ergosphere, where the spacetime continuum rotates so fast that every object spins in the same direction as the black hole.”
Whether we use solar, radio waves, black holes, or a combination of the three, one thing is clear; free energy is the next big thing. Jeeva and other companies exploring similar technology will give new meaning to the Internet of Things over the next decade.