By Chris Haak
You may have seen Powermat chargers before in your local Best Buy or somewhere online. They’re kind of a cool concept; you attach them to the back of your smartphone or music player, and they allow you to just set the devices on a charging mat, and they will charge without having to actually plug a power cord into them. You can imagine the convenience of eliminating the clutter of multiple power wires. For instance, I have an iPhone as well as a BlackBerry, and some nights, I have to charge both of them, which makes a tangled web of wires on the countertop next to my wallet and keys.
The thing I’m not crazy about with Powermat technology, aside from its fairly high cost for what it’s providing, is that it bulks up the back of your device. The thin iPhone becomes a thick iPhone thanks to its Powermat “backpack”, which allows for the wireless charging. For that reason, I just stick with the old fashioned wires to charge my devices.
Yesterday, GM’s venture-capital arm (GM Ventures) announced that it had invested $5 million USD in Powermat’s wireless charging technology. GM hopes that by putting its weight behind the technology, it can speed adoption of it throughout the world, including specifically of course in the auto industry.
One of the first steps that GM plans to take in its implementation of the wireless charging technology is to incorporate it into its technology flagship, the Chevrolet Volt. The Volt is certainly a natural fit for any type of new technology implementation, and its buyer profile is probably a fairly good match for the gadget-philes who might flock toward wireless charging technology. GM expects that the Volt will have Powermat technology available inside for charging small electronics within the next 18 months.
But aside from rolling the technology out into other GM vehicles, and perhaps other manufacturers’ vehicles, the next obvious question is, can an EV be charged wirelessly on a Powermat-type device within an owner’s garage, or on a parking space? The answer is, maybe.
Powermat CEO Ron Polikane noted that as early as 2012, GM will have potentially most of its platforms with the new technology embedded inside in a way that users can power and charge devices in the car. He also noted that the long-term goal is eventually the car itself will be charged using this technology.
That would be a major coup for the convenience and practicality of electric vehicles. Of course, it also raises some potential safety concerns – ones, by the way, that I’m sure GM and Powermat have already been pondering. For one, would there be a harmful electromagnetic field created to make a Powermat strong enough and large enough to charge an EV, which has something on the order of 4,000 times more battery capacity than a smartphone does?
Take the Powermat concept a step further, and think about a future state where roadways are embedded with the technology. Though the infrastructure setup costs would be astronomical, imagine a world in which EVs traveling “on the grid” are continuously charged wirelessly while driving, and so they either arriveat their destinations with a full charge, or exit the grid with a full charge, and can then travel on secondary roads on battery power. Should something like this ever come to fruition, battery packs could have smaller capacities, and a tagalong internal combustion engine as in the Volt would be rendered unnecessary. Then all of a sudden, the car can be lighter and uses less energy (electrical or petroleum).
The Powermat system is not without its tradeoffs (or detractors). Home-use Powermats (as pictured above) draw a constant current (known as “vampire power” draw) even when no device is charging, and they may not be as energy-efficient as individual chargers physically plugged into the device (or car). Not a big deal for a Powermat inside the Volt next to its cupholder, but potentially a problem for larger applications.
No matter; it will be very interesting to see how this technology is adapted to the automotive world. Will it be baby steps – like in-car portable device chargers – or giant leaps, like Powermat-embedded roadways? I guess we’ll find out in a few years.