The (New) New Einsteins: Marin Soljačić

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In the current issue of mental_floss magazine, Erik Vance profiled nine "New Einsteins"—visionaries who are discovering how to grow organs, peer into black holes, levitate food, cure plagues, and let blind men see. This week, Mr. Vance will be anointing five additional New Einsteins here on mentalfloss.com, one per day. Let's begin.

Who He Is: Marin Soljačić, assistant professor of physics at MIT

What He Did: Soljačić invented "WiTricity," the first steps toward wireless electricity. That is, moving electricity without cables. It all started when Soljačić awoke in the middle of the night for the umpteenth time to his chirping cell phone, reminding him to plug it in. It occurred to him that in this day and age, cell phones should be able to plug themselves in and save him the hassle.

There are two primary ways to transmit energy without wires. The first, electromagnetic radiation, is given off by charged particles. It's hugely wasteful when diffuse and potentially dangerous when concentrated (like in a laser). The second is electromagnetic resonance. This is a magnetic version of what happens when an opera singer blasts the right note and shatters a glass partially filled with water (similarly called acoustic resonance). The idea is if you can get a coil to magnetically resonate in the right way, another specially formatted coil across the room will pick that up, with no interference from whatever is in between. Using this technique in 2007, they were able to power a 60-watt light bulb from 7 feet away.

Why You Should Start Idolizing Him Immediately:

The short answer is, because Nikola Tesla is dead. Tesla was the guy who came up with AC power and was constantly bickering with Thomas Edison a century ago. He was the first to propose the idea that electricity could be transmitted without the use of wires. In fact, he even conducted several well-publicized experiments where he supposedly transmitted 100 million volts of power 26 miles using the resonance of the Earth. Sadly, he was less proficient as a manager/businessman and his secrets for wireless energy were either discredited or died with him.

So idolize Soljačić instead. If it works, wireless energy transfer would change everything. Imagine walking into your house after a hard day, watching a little wireless TV, turning off your wireless lights, and waking up the next day with you phone, laptop, and iPod fully charged. That's the first generation of wireless power. Now imagine using your laptop in a conference center or hotel without a battery. Then imagine powering the whole world without a single wire.

Although his work has just produced the first step toward the first step, the idea has quickly been broadly picked up and investigated by industry, using a swath of different platforms. Of course, with any wireless power technology comes health concerns. But most technology watchers agree that at some point, in some form, your Roomba will no longer need batteries.

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November 17, 2008 - 4:30am
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