September 21, 2011

Technology within 5 years for faster wireless, energy harvesting and wireless power transmission

Computerworld has the second half of a two-part series on technology breakthroughs that have the potential to change computing.

Leaps in access, power, control

1. Multi-gigabit Wi-Fi

New wireless communication standard WiGig can operate at up to 7Gbps. This is more than an order of magnitude faster than today's 802.11n Wi-Fi, which can operate at up to 600Mbps. WiGig's top speed has a range of only 45 feet. WiGig uses beam forming to create a focused beam of data for a direct link that has minimal interference. By 2013, WiGig devices could be in TVs, computers, phones, tablets and other electronics.

2. Self-powered electronics

Georgia Tech has designed tiny generators that can produce enough energy to power very small devices by harvesting vibration and motion energy. These high-output nanogenerators, HONGs for short, can produce between 2 and 10 volts from a flexible chip smaller than a fingernail. By 2013, Wang sees self-powered phones, digital music players and even a wireless keyboard powered by nothing more than the musician's keystrokes.

3. Over-the-air power

Powercast is transmitting power via radio waves. Called power harvesting, the technique uses the company's book-size Powercaster transmitter to send either 1 or 3 watts of electricity into the air at the 915MHz radio frequency. At the receiving end, the power is pulled from the air by one of the company's Powerharvester chips, which convert RF energy to DC power. Currently the usable range is about 40 to 45 feet. Powercast isn't the only company developing RF-to-DC power technology. Nihon Dengyo Kosaku of Japan, for instance, has been working on a similar system that relies on a special rectifying antenna. Powercast, however, claims to have a head start on its competitors, saying it has chips ready to be integrated into products.

By 2012, Powercast hopes to have a household sensor product available to power smoke detectors that will never need to have their batteries changed.

4. Self-healing batteries

Currently batteries are fragile and fail within a few years. New self healing batteries could eventually extend computer battery life to ten years.

Researchers are coating a battery's cathode with billions of microspheres filled with gooey gallium-indium. The key is that the spheres have been designed to break open when stressed (like when the device is dropped) or heated up (as when the battery shorts). "We can trigger the microcapsules through mechanical force, temperature or pH," explains White from his lab at the university. "The capsules release their contents when damage occurs and a healing reaction takes place."

The gallium-indium quickly can flow in to fill in the gaps to fix the short, and the battery can be restored in as little as 40 microseconds. In most cases, that's not even enough time for the battery's control electronics to shut it down. "We get restoration of conductivity," adds White. "It is immediate."

5. Neural computer control

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University on a project known as NeuroSys for non-invasive Brain Computer Interfaces.

For this group, efforts to turn thought into computing action began with observations of people's brains using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.

NeuroSys researchers started with nouns and moved on to verbs, amassing brain scans and noting similarities among them until clear patterns emerged. All this data has been incorporated into a computer program that can translate neural activity patterns to words.

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