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Disruptive: uBeam Lands $750K To Let You Charge Gadgets Without Plugs (techcrunch.com)
18 points by sachitgupta on July 12, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 22 comments

Here's how uBeam actually works:

Ubeam emits Ultrasound frequency waves from a base station. These sound waves are converted into mechanical energy by a crystal inside a flash-drive sized dongle attached to the device. The crystal resonates at that sound frequency and the mechanical energy of the vibration is then converted into electricity by the dongle.

The shit works. And everyone told her that it couldn't.

50kHz ultrasound in the demo.

I expect the efficiency to be terrible, which will be the failure point. Do you want to have an always-on 300W device just to avoid finding a cord?

Radial power transfer efficiency drops off proportional to r^2, as does omni-directional sound. Unless there is some sort of directional beam established to focus the energy transfer, I imagine these power losses will indeed occur. Note that room effects may well be non-negligible - reflections may mean more power arrives at the receiver than the naive estimate.

So I would imagine the ceiling mounted charging station would be a fairly heavy duty outfit with a multi-kW rating if it is to be able to service a large room.

I thought prolonger exposure to ultrasound was dangerous, how is uBeam safe?

As already pointed out, they use ultrasound to beam the energy, and they claim to have filed some patents applications. Alas, there's a ton of prior art in this space, and I wonder how they're going to navigate them.

For example, ultrasound is already used to wirelessly charge pacemakers:


And here is a very pertinent patent in this space (2004) that also contains a nice review of prior art:


The central difficulty in this idea, as pointed out in the above patent, is automatically aiming a sufficiently focused beam at the receiver. Otherwise you get killed by 1/rˆ2 power decay. And this is a non-trivial task, which will force them to either go the royalties way or dodge the existing patents.

I don't doubt the team can move forward, but I wonder if the undergrads (and their investors) have underestimated the difficulty and history of the problem.

That being said, it's refreshing to see folks inspired by real-world problems that don't involve "social".

Wishing them best of luck!

Wireless charging/power is something that has been around since Tesla and still not fully taken off.

Maybe the Tesla patent expired or they have managed to patent the crystal radio!

"uBeam has “several patents” filed regarding its technology for wirelessly charging gadgets such as laptops and smartphones without plugging them into wall outlets or other energy sources, and she is being aided by a team of other people"

So they have applied for patents, not been awarded them. Though even if there are prior art/products that already do what they plan on doing they may still get awarded the patents for something that IMHO is in the public domain with the prior work by Tesla and cystal radio's. Not sure how they can expand upon that. But without a product to scrutinise, then there is nothing too see here.

There is a lot of published research on wireless charging and several products on the market.

My guess is that the patents are more for something on the periphery than the core technology.

Anyone know how different this is from e.g. powermat?

Powermat has no plugs either. By the "closest thing to magic" comments, I would guess uBeam can charge your phone while still in your pocket (whereas powermat and similar systems require ~2mm distance from the charger).

Which, if true, is kind of scary -- it means that a bug or bad estimation would target nontrivial energy to your groin (5W charges your average modern phone; that might not sound like a lot, but cellphones are limited to 0.6W so that they don't raise your brain or skin temperature too much, and most phones in most locations use less than 0.1W when talking, about 0.01W on average in standby. 5W is a lot)

edit: pressed submit permaturely.

From the video link further down the comments it clearly states that it uses ultrasound at around 50kHz, which is then transformed back into about 30V, but I didn't pick up any information about how much power is actually transmitted.

As for safety, they state that it is above human hearing, and bounces off skin, so does not penetrate tissue like the high frequency ultrasound used for medical scans. Not too sure about the high freq claim, as some "ultrasound" devices give me a headache even though they are supposed to be above human perception.

The idea seems to be to charge a battery in the flash-drive sized charging adapter, and then use this to charge whatever appliance you plug into it. They mentioned about 3hrs for full charge for this adapter, but again, not sure how much power this equates to.

IIRC, Powermat etc. uses inductive charging, whereas uBeam uses ultrasound (see MediaSquirrel's comment).

Did anyone else notice that the founder just graduated with a degree in Paleobiology (Astrobiology)? I wonder how she got involved with hardware.

Hardware needs more investment. It's hard work, requires significant seed money just to get rolling, and in my opinion is far more important than the latest web app or similar.

It will be interesting to see how this goes. I'm certainly hoping that they can achieve something good.

However, as others have said, ultrasound for wireless charging must be horrifically inefficient. It will be interesting to learn more when they've got something working.

Not only are you contending with inverse square law (which can probably be negated to some extent by directing the beam of sound) but also losses due to air, losses in picking up the sound waves with a crystal and losses in converting that vibration into electrical energy.

If the efficiencies are much below 80%, it'd be a highly impractical method for charging any high power devices. Phones would probably be OK, but laptops with large batteries really wouldn't be.

Every year there is some new gadget at CES that charges wirelessly in some new, innovative way, but is never heard from again. I guess I'll be a believer when I see it for the first time as a consumer somewhere.

Hardware startups are pretty rough, and they're giving this fresh grad (with apparently no track record?) 750k to figure out the technology, design the circuitry/mold, setup manufacturing, distribution and so on. That's sure a lot of faith in the team. Good luck.

This fresh grad of Paleobiology (Astrobiology). No engineering anywhere.

How can you disrupt an industry that either does not exist (wireless charging) or one that is highly commoditized (USB chargers) and with no clear path to grow any of it?

I wonder if they've thought about marketing it as a remote, in situ denture cleaning system.

The only way it will be disruptive is if it finally catches on. Wireless charging is nothing new. I personally think Palm and then HP did it best, integrating wireless charging with device functionality via API. I am curious what they mean about not plugging it in to ANY energy source.

I suspect that means that you don't plug it into a docking station.

I also suspect that the only thing it'll disrupt is your genome :)

Probably operates like wifi, where you're connected to a socket through a device that broadcasts to whatever you're charging.

Is "uBeam" seriously the best they could come up with?

At this point, we know nothing about the product, beyond the fact that it raised that much on potential.

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