(Radio) wave of the future

| Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2007

Here's one case of very old technology inspiring the very latest.

Recalling the early radio known as a "crystal set" that he owned as a kid, University of Pittsburgh professor Marlin Mickle and his students developed a wireless technology that can recharge a battery or provide power in a hard-to-reach place.

Wireless in this case means recharging a battery without plugging it into a recharger.

That technology, now licensed to the startup firm Powercast LLC based in Ligonier, Westmoreland County, is generating excitement as a way to power portable electronic items ranging from cell phones and game controllers to surgically implanted devices that could control tremors in patients with Parkinson's disease.

"With a crystal set you took the energy out of the air, and that drove the earphones and the radio," said Mickle, an electrical and computer engineering and telecommunications professor also known for his work on radio frequency identification technology.

Powercast won a "best in show" award for emerging technology at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month in Las Vegas. Powercast has landed Royal Philips Electronics -- the big German electronics manufacturer -- as a customer and expects that the first commercial product using its Wireless Power Platform will be on the market by the end of this year.

The company, known before as FireFly Power Technologies, spent about four years completing patent and other research.

Media and organizers at the huge electronics show spotted Powercast representatives as they charged cell phones and BlackBerries via radio wave at a Philips booth, CEO John Shearer said. While the company was trying to introduce its technology in a low-key way, he said, "Well, so much for that."

Mickle said his initial research into wireless power began about a decade ago with a study on how lost hearing aids might be found using advanced technology.

He was on the board of directors at the Asbury Heights retirement community in Mt. Lebanon. A fellow member suggested the project on misplaced hearing aids, a frequent problem in care facilities for the elderly, and Mickle and his students tackled it as the first of several foundation-sponsored studies.

The idea was to put something inside the tiny devices to allow them to be tracked remotely -- "something that didn't require a battery" that would have to be replaced, or recharged through an electrical outlet, Mickle added.

Mickle remembered the crystal set that charged itself by radio frequency, and while the hearing aid tracking idea never came to fruition, several other research projects followed. The technology was licensed in 2001.

Powercast used the Pitt technology as the starting point for its products, Shearer said, and the first commercial test came about a year ago when the company worked with another Pittsburgh firm, IntelliSensor, to improve the penguin habitat at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium.

Zoo staff had trouble keeping the habitat cold enough for the birds. IntelliSensor's devices installed in the habitat gauge the temperature inside, and Powercast's technology keeps the devices fully charged so there's no need to disturb the penguins to change batteries.

The Wireless Power Platform is getting interest from a wide range of commercial customers. "This is so unique that everybody wants it, but they say, 'Don't tell anybody that you are working with us,'" Shearer said.

Mickle and Shearer caution that the technology won't power big devices such as a car or even a laptop computer.

"Think of something that could use a AA or AAA battery," Shearer said, like a TV remote, security sensor, ornamental lighting or small, implanted medical device.

A cell phone could be left next to a lamp equipped with a transmitter, and it could recharge overnight, Shearer said.

The same phone would charge faster when plugged into a charger and a conventional 110-volt wall outlet, he said. "But here's the convenience factor."

Additional Information:

Powercast's platform

Ligonier-based startup company Powercast LLC showed off its Wireless Power Platform at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Here's how the technology works:

* A transmitter chip powered by a wall outlet or other source of electricity sends out a continuous, low-level radio signal.

* Any device that runs on low power -- a cell phone, game controller or security sensor -- can capture the signal if it's equipped with Powercast antennae and receiver chips.

* The signal gradually recharges the battery in the device or, in some cases, acts as the direct power source.

Source: Powercast LLC.

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