How sustainable infrared technology could change our relationship with our phones

The Sustainable MBA

How sustainable infrared technology could change our relationship with our phones

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Statistica predicts that the number of smart home households will double by 2023 to 70.6 million, from 34.8 million in 2018. With the proliferation of smart home devices comes many batteries, either single-use or lithium-ion, all of which need to be replaced.

Recent research from Wi-Charge finds that 40 percent of American consumers have to replace smart home device batteries multiple times per month, with 20 percent changing these batteries weekly. If we take into account the fact that 57 percent of smart home households have more than three devices, that’s an enormous number of additional batteries—and battery waste.

Wi-Charge, which has developed infrared technology to recharge both smart home devices and cell phones, is hoping to be part of a battery-free future. Yuval Boger, the company’s CMO, believes that the technology can create a revolution, both in sustainability and convenience.

Bard MBA alum Heather Bowden spoke with Boger about how Wi-Charge’s technology works and about the company’s go-to-market strategy in a recent conversation. 

Heather Bowden: How does Wi-Charge technology work?

Yuval Boger: Wi-Charge enables users to power small devices — like cell phones or smart locks — from a distance of several feet without wires or any kind of physical connection between the device and an energy source. It works by sending out a thin beam of infrared light, which is prevalent in nature — 50 percent of the sun’s energy is infrared light. A receiver on the device then converts the beam into electricity. The receiver is essentially a small photovoltaic cell, so we sometimes call it indoor solar energy.

We send invisible light from one side of the room to the other, and that light gets converted to electricity and powers the device.

Bowden: The battery waste that Wi-Charge addresses is huge. There are 3 billion batteries are thrown away every year in the U.S.

Boger: Batteries are indeed a big problem — and they’re a problem in many ways. One, they need to be replaced, which is one more thing to fit into our daily lives: "Oh, I’m out of batteries," or "I need to recharge my battery." We just published a study showing that people get cranky or anxious when their battery levels are low.

Also, batteries are an environmental concern — are they being properly disposed of, or do they get thrown away and buried in a landfill? They’re expensive. If you compare regular electricity with electricity from batteries, batteries are about 500 times more expensive per unit of energy than wires.

The advantage of wireless power from Wi-Charge is that the power is never-ending. You never have to replace the battery. You also don’t have to install a wire, so there isn’t any inconvenience there. It’s much cheaper than a battery.

Plus, Wi-Charge can help promote functionality. When device manufacturers develop a battery-operated device, they sometimes leave out functionality to conserve battery. With wireless power, your device can do a whole lot more, and the user experience can be a whole lot better. 

Bowden: Wi-Charge has partnered with manufacturers to bring this technology to market. How has that gone?

Boger: It’s very easy to create a plug-and-play prototype to show that something works, but a manufacturer typically wants this type of technology to be embedded and integrated.

For instance, think back to when TVs didn’t have remote controls — you’d have to go up to the TV and turn a dial every time you wanted to change the channel. To integrate a remote control into a television, a manufacturer had to create a little window in the television set for the infrared light from the remote control.

That’s the kind of integration we need to do for our technology. The real solution for smart locks, for security cameras, for kitchen and bath products, for industrial IoT, is to integrate our little receiver into the technology. It’s not difficult to do, but it takes time in terms of moving it to production to ensure everyone understands how it’s going to be used, figuring out the right price for the consumer, and all the things that have to do with launching a new generation of products. 

Bowden: What attracted you to Wi-Charge?

Boger: Wi-Charge is an opportunity to really change the world, to get rid of single-use batteries, and to allow things that weren’t possible before to be possible.

Think of the Wi-Fi analogy. Imagine if all our devices had to be wired to the wall to connect to the internet, so that we had to stop and connect someplace to fetch our email or Facebook messages.

We think that Wi-Charge can get rid of the power cable just like Wi-Fi got rid of the data cable. This could create a tremendous revolution, both in convenience and in sustainability. We’re very excited about what the future holds for us and for people who use our technology.

This Q&A is an edited excerpt from the Bard MBA’s Nov. 15 The Impact Report podcast. The Impact Report brings together students and faculty in Bard’s MBA in Sustainability program with leaders in business, sustainability and social entrepreneurship.

[An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the details of Wi-Charge's technology. The post has been updated to reflect an accurate description. We regret the error.]