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Complex solutions to simple problems

3 August 2020

Over 120 years ago, Nikola Tesla demonstrated that electrical energy can be transferred across open space without wires.

Even though a century of rapid technological advancement has passed since those first proof of concept demonstrations, we're still using long runs of conductive cables to deliver power -- whether it be from the wall-socket to our appliances or across the nation.

There have only been a very few practical applications of wireless electricity transmission and these are almost all limited to near-field interactions -- such as the wireless charging system used by some smartphones.

The reality is that wireless power transmission is great in theory but tends to be flawed in practice.

Which is probably why the old-boys feeding trough that is Calaghan Innovation has decided to start throwing money at it.

Yes, I must admit right up front that I have little time for Callaghan Innovation and its claims to be "New Zealand's Innovation Agency".

In my honest opinion, Callaghan Innovation seems more about "looking after well connected mates" than it is about fostering genuine innovation.

The list of lunatic ideas that have received funding from this organisation seems to indicate that it's more about being able to spin a good yarn and have the right connections than it is about having a really innovative idea with commercial potential.

Okay, I've got my personal prejudices and judgements out of the way so let's take a more objective look at the latest beneficiary of Callaghan's funding.

According to this media report, Callaghan is throwing taxpayers' money at a concept that was clearly inspired by Tesla but which ignores much of the subsiquent research. That research has pretty much proven the impracticality of using microwave beams to transfer any significant amount of energy over anything other than a very short distance.

As well as the relatively low efficiencies involved (over a third of the input energy is not recovered at the output end) there are significant environmental risks created through the use of high-energy microwaves.

To their credit, the guys at Emrod (the target of Callaghan's funding) are talking about using a "laser curtain" to disable the microwave transmitter if a bird or other obect was to intrude into the high-energy beam. This might sound like a good idea but I wonder at the practicalities of an energy transmission system that could be disabled by a single bird or by fog, rain and other environmental variables.

Indeed, one of the images in the news report shows a couple of transmission antennas located in mountainous bush. Using a wireless energy transfer system would obviously appear very attractive in such a situation -- until you realise that this is exactly the environment where fog/low-cloud and birdlife would be not at all uncommon.

The guys at Emrod may have a chance at this but when I look at all the research that has been done in the past 100 years and compare that to the fact that we have still seen no practical implementations of this far-field wireless energy transfer technology, I must say I have significant doubts as to whether we'll see any viable tech coming out of this exercise. If NASA, a long list of prestigeous universities and a number of commercial start-ups can't make it happen, what chance a bunch of Kiwis with some funding from the old-boy's network?

And... never underestimate how quickly, with the help of a few heavy-lift helicopters, a set of transmission cables can be strung up to connect two points with giga-watts worth of carrying capacity that works 24/7 with near perfect efficiency.

Still, it's only taxpayers' money and it's what Callaghan does best -- throw money at ideas that are neither innovative nor likely to succeed.

Now shut up and pay your taxes so this can continue for the benefit of all the "well connected" old-boys.

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