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Imagine a future where you can charge your smartphone by simply placing it on your desk, your car’s dashboard, or on the table at a local fast food restaurant. You might be surprised to find that the technology to support that future has been around — and embedded into many phones — for more than five years.

So why aren’t we already able to charge our iPhones wirelessly on the table at our local Panera? The key lies in a standards war that you probably didn’t even know was happening.

But before we get into that, here’s a bit of a primer on how this technology works in the first place.

How Wireless Charging Works

Wireless charging uses two physical coils wrapped around magnets, one converts energy into an electromagnetic field that can travel wirelessly, and the other converts that same floating field back into energy again. The two coils form a transformer.

The concept of wireless charging has been around since Nikola Tesla first concluded that you could transfer power between two objects through an electromagnetic field. Though the concept of wireless charging has been understood for more than 100 years, scientists hadn’t figured out how to efficiently transfer large amounts of power with the technique until fairly recently.
The amount of electricity you can transfer is proportional to the number of coils that are looped around the tiny bar magnet and the strength of the magnet. Until recently, wires and electronics couldn't be made cheaply enough and small enough to make wireless charging feasible.

Wireless Charging Standards

The capability for wireless charging has been in phones and even cars for years. But much like the battle between Blu-ray and HD DVD in 2008, there was a standards war waging that hindered widespread adoption of wireless charging.

Two of the biggest players in the wireless charging industry were the Power Matters Alliance (PMA) and the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC), both backed by a number of big names in the mobile industry. The PMA’s AirFuel and the WPC’s Qi standard work very similarly. However, the technology is implemented slightly differently, so a phone using the Qi standard wouldn’t be compatible with an AirFuel charging mat, and vice versa.

For a while, it was unclear who would come out on top. Both organizations were backed by a number of big names in the industry. But in January 2018, Qi won the war with the news that Powermat (a founding member of the PMA) was joining the WPC.

“Qi has become the dominant wireless charging standard on the market and the recently launched Apple iPhone lineup is evidence of this success,” Powermat CEO Elad Dubzinski said in a statement. “Powermat will share technology innovation to further unlock wireless charging potential, and will expedite the growth of the wireless charging infrastructure.”

What’s Next for Wireless Charging?

What should you expect from the future of wireless charging? More charging access in public spaces like hotel lobbies, airplanes, and restaurants for one. At home, you could have an entire wall or countertop made of a wireless power source. And imagine an office free of messy cables and power strips.

And scientists and engineers are working to achieve true charging at a distance, where a power source sends an electrical charge through an entire area. So one day you could charge your phone simply riding on a train or going into your favorite restaurant.  

Wireless Charging and Machine Learning

With the proliferation of wireless charging in public places will come an explosion of data about consumer behavior. Wireless charging providers who learn how to monetize this data will come out on top.