Many of us have dreamed of having a system that would charge our phones as soon as we enter a room, in the same way that Wi-Fi does.
Wireless power technology could usher in this future. PHION Technologies Corp. of California is working to make wireless power charging a reality in homes and offices and public spaces.
Jonathan Nydell, CEO of the company, says that wireless power charging will not only make life more convenient, . it will change the way electronic devices are used. We interviewed Mr. Nydell about the possibilities of wireless power transfer and the path of its development.
I’m Jon Nydell CEO and co-founder of PHION Technologies and I have had the privilege of working with a focused and talented team to make over-the-air wireless charging a reality over the past 5 years.
I was working at SpaceX as a lead Avionics engineer on multiple SpaceX vehicles including the Dragon spacecraft and the early version of Starlink satellites. Prior to SpaceX, I spent a portion of my post-graduate work on a CERN-based particle acceleration experiment using lasers and plasmas. I left SpaceX and built a small team to start PHION Technologies. While I have multiple jobs at PHION, I particularly enjoy leading technology development and overall product design.
・The dream technology of wireless power supply
・Innovation comes when we are spared from path dependency.
・“Common ideas for uncommon applications”
・What is the appeal of the Japanese market?
・Sell new products to new markets.
The dream technology of wireless power supply
–Wireless power transfer sounds like something out of a novel. Are these technologies actually being realized?
Nydell: Over the past five years or so, wireless power transmission, which sends power to a location several meters away, has begun to gain public awareness. Near field or surface based wireless power is being used for low power consumer devices but also in industrial areas such as robotics and in the retail sector, including RFID tags and readers.
Even users who were initially reluctant to use it are gradually realizing how convenient it is. In the future, wireless power transfer will be used in many more areas. In the smart city concept, for example, IoT devices in smart buildings may undergo revolutionary changes.
Technology will support these trends. While there have been various attempts at RF and magnetic resonance, there have been challenges in terms of the amount of power that can be safely transmitted and the distance between the transmitter and the receiver.
PHION is addressing these challenges. We are developing products that overcome the previous challenges while at the same time maximizing functionality. At the moment, we can send up to 5 Watts of power a few meters away.
–Powering remote objects is really becoming possible, isn’t it?
Nydell: Yes. In fact, PHION’s service could be used for equipment from small sensors to larger robots, as well as cell phones and computers that are carried around.
Or it could work well in places like hospitals and medical facilities. In medical facilities, a variety of equipment devices are connected to the charging cord. In addition, interference with other radio frequencies, such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, would be eliminated using PHION’s technology.
Innovation comes when we are spared from path dependency.
–We have heard that there have been challenges in the past with wireless power supply. How did you overcome these challenges?
Nydell: Longer distance wireless power transfer has typically relied upon RF technology, which is used in data transmission and wireless communication. This seems to be the trend, as many engineers are familiar with RF technology.
However, transmitting large amounts of power to remote locations with RF technology is not an easy task. This is because the air absorbs the RF energy and the power is rapidly weakened. Using RF technology requires use of transmitters of enormous output power to reach the same wireless charging capabilities as PHION’s technology. In terms of sustainability and efficiency, this is a solution with many challenges.
Other approaches include electromagnetic induction, such as Qi (Qi) charging. While this is indeed contactless, the electromagnetic waves emitted by the transmitter quickly disperse. The distance between the transmitter and receiver can only be about 6 mm with current technology standard.
Our technology, on the other hand, is based on light. With an optical-based approach, there is zero loss as the light travels through the air, allowing us to achieve higher power, efficiency, and creating a scalable solution in both distance and power. Another advantage is that a beam of light can follow a receiver moving in space. We designed our technology to be modular such that equipment manufacturers can easily integrate the technology into their products. The majority of components used in our approach are relatively cheap as they are based on existing and common optoelectronic components.
–There was a breakthrough in the use of light, wasn’t there? On the other hand, are there any disadvantages to using light?
Nydell: We had major concerns about safety. For example, as you can imagine with a laser pointer, if the laser light  gets into your eyes, it could be hazardous to your eye health. Optical-based wireless power transmission has such challenges.
That is why we put safety first in our development. The solution was to create a system that would not expose humans to laser light. Specifically, we included multiple and redundant sensors and systems to detect people or objects trying to get between the transmitter and receiver. The idea is similar to a physical charging cord, with an image of a barrier around the laser light for power supply.
The physical charging cord has a cover, so you cannot directly touch the wires inside. In the same way, a low power, completely eye safe, beam that serves as a barrier is placed in a cylindrical shape 360 degrees around the laser beam for power supply. If something touches the barrier beam, the interference is instantly detected (1/1000 of a blink of an eye ) and the power- beam is stopped. The system is designed so that the high power- light beam is not accessible to a human being
If you have any illustrations, etc., I would like to include them.
–I see, so it was successful because of the breakthroughs that overcame the safety issues?
Nydell: Yes, you are correct.
We also integrated a proprietary photovoltaic into our receiver. Generally, when light power is sent from the transmitter, the receiver converts it to electrical power efficiently. Normally, we might utilize a commercially available solar cell mechanism, but we designed our own photovoltaic device. This allows us to achieve conversion efficiencies that are two to three times higher than typical market products.
Thus, there have been breakthroughs from two perspectives: safety and conversion efficiency. This technology compensates for the shortcomings of conventional power supply methods while bringing positive aspects to the forefront.
“Common ideas for uncommon applications”
–I felt it was a breakthrough with a novel approach. How does one come up with such an idea?
Nydell: There were two triggers:
The first was an experience I had working for SpaceX. The electronics used in rockets and spacecraft have many wire cables and connectors. The cables were multi-layered, with insulators and shielding around the copper wires. The collection of cables ends up weighing a lot, but I felt it didn’t have to be that way. The inspiration for wireless power transfer came from the desire to reduce the weight of physical cabling on the spacecraft by eliminating the need all together for the physical cabling.
The second, more familiar one, was inspired by garage door shutters. You see, electric shutters have a safety mechanism to prevent people from being accidentally caught in them. Technically, it is a mechanism that uses two optical components, one that transmits light and another that receives it. When an obstacle, such as a body part blocks the path between the two components, the garage door stops closing. This simple mechanism was also the inspiration for the development of our safety system.
–It is very interesting that the idea was also inspired by everyday life. So what can we do with this technology?
Nydell: The current technology is what we call the PHION ONETM, which can safely deliver 5 Watts of power to a portable device at a distance of 4.57 meters.
Five Watts can power a smartphone, as well as household devices such as speakers, electric toothbrushes, remote controls, and IoT devices. A second generation, 20-Watt charging device is also in development. This device will be able to charge some small robots, drones, and laptops sufficiently to keep them running indefinitely.
–What is your goal after the second generation?
Nydell: We would like to work on increasing the amount of power so that we can charge more devices and open up different markets to wireless charging. Construction use cases require significantly more power than consumer electronics. Our hope is to scale the technology to deliver hundreds of Watts to satisfy devices and equipment in these environments. There is a lot of work to be done to get there but there is no fundamental roadblock to doing so from a technical perspective.
However, we must avoid moving in the direction of reducing the efficiency of power transmission by increasing the amount of power. We believe it is important to implement eco-friendly green technology. The balance between increasing the amount of power and improving efficiency is very important, especially when used for large commercial real estate.
We also have plans to incorporate PHION’s technology into other companies’ products. It is our dream to embed PHION’s receiver in a smartphone or laptop so that PHION’s hardware becomes part of the device and invisible to the user.
Currently, devices such as cell phones and PCs have ports for charging. By incorporating PHION’s technology, this charging port or opening is eliminated. The strength of wireless technology can be utilized in this way. We may be able to drastically change the way electronic devices are used.
What is the appeal of the Japanese market?
–Your company operates in the USA. What kind of market is Japan for your company?
Nydell: In the Japanese market, functionality and design are very important. One thing that is particularly interesting is that Japanese construction companies have a lot of Ph.D. holders working in the industry, and thereby actively introducing cutting-edge technology. It is not common to have such researchers and scientist working for general contractors in the U.S.,.
In this environment, we feel that many Japanese companies see wireless power transfer as a stepping stone to realize smart buildings and improve the quality of life. We started out in Japan with an inquiry about wirelessly opening and closing window blinds in high-rise buildings, but as various Japanese companies have strong aspirations for their buildings, we have come to believe that wireless power transmission is widely desirable and can be widely used.
–What do you hope to achieve in Japan in the future?
Nydell: We hope to complete our fundraising within the next month or two so that we can deploy the technology to our pilot and POC customers. Based on the feedback we have received from Corporate partners, we are confident that technology introduction via PoCs, will help to stimulate demand and promote widespread use. While commercial offices will be our starting point, we will expand the use cases to include similar applications pertaining to mobility and high-speed rail.
We are aiming for a future in which PHION’s wireless power supply is widely accepted as a standard, just as USB has become a standard.
Sell new products to new markets.
–After all, how can a power cord be lost?
Nydell: First, it is important for users to understand and become familiar the convenience and safety of wireless power transfer. As users are exposed to new technologies, they will forget what life was like before it existed. This is core the disruptive technology. Also, even with Wi-Fi, which is now widely used, some users were initially concerned about exposure to wireless signals. In order for users to use the technology widely, I believe that we must explain it thoroughly so that they understand its safety. And just like Wi-Fi, wired ethernet connections still exist, but in general, Wi-Fi is highly preferable and prevalent.
Expanding the range of applications would also be a good opportunity to make more people aware of the product. We would like to find applications that can be used more successfully, not only for cell phones and cameras. To do so, we recognize the need to continuously develop the technology to to make its use frictionless and effectively invisible to the user. It needs to have a 10x improvement on the existing technology for the user.
New hardware will not become popular unless it is used in a variety of situations. Expanding the customer experience will lead to new customer applications. The key to success is to make it work in the background so that users are not even aware that they are using PHION products.
–you feel that you are creating the “norm”.
Nydell: Yes, that’s right. Before Steve Jobs announced that the iPod enabled you to have a 1,000 songs in your pocket, . no one had ever believed it. Also, in the 1990s, everyone was wired to the Internet, but the evolution of Wi-Fi changed the whole scene, didn’t it?
What we are trying to do is this kind of disruptive innovation. Just as the iPod ushered in a new era, we want to usher in a new era with wireless power transmission. We recognize that it will take time for mass adoption, but fundamentally believe our technology will make the built world a better place.
 Beam: Light or electromagnetic waves radiated or transmitted in a certain direction.
 Laser light: Light of a specific wavelength (i.e., a specific color) that is amplified and radiated in approximately the same direction.