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Wireless power, a traveller's friend

It's every business traveller's nightmare. I arrived in Las Vegas for CES (the Consumer Electronics Show) after a 17-hour journey from Dublin only to discover that the power cord for my laptop wouldn't work and I didn't have an electrical converter for my mobile phone's power cable.

I had intended to buy an electrical converter for my phone in the airport when I arrived but after that long trek, I was preoccupied with picking up my bag and reaching my bed. The next day when my laptop battery wore down and I pulled out my power cord, I realised that the two halves of my laptop power cord didn't fit together so they were useless.

If Fulton Innovations has its way, my situation wouldn't pose a problem in a few years. Instead of powering my phone off when I'm not using it and begging my colleagues to borrow their laptop power cords, I could use "wireless power" technology introduced by Fulton at CES and known as eCoupled.

The technology was first developed by Fulton's parent company, Alticor, and enables the transfer of power without a wire over a distance of about 1in. Alticor originally developed it to power a device inside a water-treatment system canister that contains water.

The company has been using the technology for many years but just recently decided to try to commercialise it for use in other products. Fulton started by applying for just under 200 patents, said David Hazlett, director of business development, global sales and marketing for Fulton.

A future application of the technology that could solve my CES power problem would be a simple small flat-panel, potentially about the size of a small mouse pad, that I could bring along with me when I travel. In my hotel room, I'd plug the panel into the wall. By simply placing my electronic devices, such as phone, laptop, MP3 player and digital recorder, on the panel, I'd be able to charge them all. No more travelling with a handful of messy power cords.

The eCoupled technology has intelligence that senses the power requirements of the devices that touch it. That means that a single panel could deliver enough power to charge a laptop battery as well as the lower power needs of something like an MP3 player and power multiple devices at the same time.

While the technology, which uses magnetic fields to transfer electricity from one device to another, is actually wireless, the range is short so most of the applications Hazlett showed involved setting the electronic device on a pad or cradle.

The trick will be encouraging all the device makers to embed into their products the circuit boards required to use the technology. Motorola is working with Fulton and others in hopes of standardising the technology. Other companies involved include Visteon, a developer of products for the automotive industry; Mobility Electronics, the creator of accessories and electronic power products; and Herman Miller, a furniture maker.

Hazlett showed off some concept products. One was a product that Visteon is working on that sits in a cup holder of a car and plugs into the adaptor. Users could set their phones or music players onto the device to power them in the car. Hazlett also showed off a car armrest with a tray in which users could place their phones to charge them.

Initially, electronic devices could be fitted with adaptors before device makers build the technology into their products. Hazlett showed off one concept adaptor that attached to an iPod and also included Bluetooth.

Hazlett showed me a circuit board that could be embedded in smaller electronic devices and it was about the size of two postage stamps and nearly as flat. That size could shrink some and in volume the boards could cost just one or two pennies, he said.

Beyond the portable applications, the technology could be used for other interesting household applications. For example, Hazlett showed off a tray that could be embedded in or sit on top of a kitchen counter. Users could place small kitchen appliances such as an electric griddle or a blender on the tray to power them. The tray could be used to power mobile phones or any electronic gadget a user might set on it.

eCoupled products could have saved me at CES. I'll just have to hope that once products become commercially available, they include easy adaptors for use around the world. Otherwise I'm sure to forget a power converter on an overseas trips and still be stuck without power.

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