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Emrod: Realizing Nikola Tesla’s Dream of Wireless Power Transmission [Recognizing One of the 2022 Energy Central Innovation Champions: Greg Kushnir]

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This item is part of the Special Issue - 2022-05 - Leaders In Innovation, click here for more

Earlier this year, Energy Central dispatched our annual call for nominations for power professionals leading the way in Innovation, and we're proud to announce the 4 winners and 2 honorable mentions, which you can read about here. This week, we'll be spotlighting each of those 4 winners after conducting interviews to learn more about their great work. 

Please help us celebrate Greg's and the other champions' successes by reading some of the insights garnered from these exclusive Innovation Champion Interviews.

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In 1899, at his laboratory in Long Island, famed inventor Nikola Tesla hooked up an oscillator coil in a wooden tower with a long metal pole and topped it off with a copper sphere. He then used the Tesla coil, as the contraption was known, to light up a bulb three kms away. Tesla’s ultimate goal was to power humanity using strategically situated wireless towers and suspended balloons.

While the experiment was successful, a wireless grid powered by the Tesla coil failed to take off. There were physical limitations: signal strength degraded with increasing distance. And it was not economical: the market was not big enough to defray costs associated with the building of such a system. By 1906, Tesla ran out of money to fund his idea and had to close the lab.

More than a century later, things have changed. A New Zealand-based startup is attempting to bring Tesla’s vision to life. Emrod has developed power beaming technology to send large amounts of power across long distances using electromagnetic energy.

Although Emrod shares a vision for a world with wireless power with Tesla, their technology is fundamentally different. Emrod’s technology converts electricity into electromagnetic energy in a tight and controlled beam, like a virtual line. This beam is formed and sent from a transmitting antenna to a receiving antenna, where it is converted back to  electricity for use. Emrod uses relays to extend the technology’s geographic reach.

Launched in 2019, Emrod crowdsourced funding and has ambitious plans for its technology. It is working on a pilot project with PowerCo, a New Zealand utility, and Ara Ake, the New Zealand government’s energy innovation agency,  to test its technology’s efficiency in distributing power over increasing distances, starting with 200m. It is also exploring the creation of a decentralized grid, using it’s relay technology and satellites to send power around the earth.  

 

Improving An Old Technology

In a world dense with electrical wires, the idea of beaming power across distances may seem novel and revolutionary. But Emrod CEO Greg Kushnir says the physics to transmit power is not new and some of the technology used in their systems has been around for more than a century. His team refined the tech with latest advancements to overcome earlier deficiencies and make it commercially viable.

Tesla’s system propagated waves indiscriminately in all directions, resulting in wastage and lower strength across long distances. Emrod’s tech uses collimated or narrow beams to focus microwaves on the receiving station’s direction. Their use of relays also ensures that power can travel long distances.

Another innovation in the system is the use of metamaterials or composite materials that enable conversion of electromagnetic waves back to electricity at the receiving station without significant degradation. The result of these improvements is a technology that has varied use cases across many verticals. For example, it can be used to decarbonize  industries reliant on heavy machinery by enabling transmission of power generated using renewable energy to work sites and to power slow moving vehicles.

Not surprisingly, the startup’s go-to market strategy consists of partnering with leading players across industries to demonstrate relevance of the technology to that vertical. Kushnir says they will move to a business model in which they either provide power services in the infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) model or license their technology to IaaS providers.

 

How Can Utilities Use Emrod’s Technology?

Kushnir’s pitch to the utility industry is that Emrod’s technology enables virtual wires in the grid and eliminates expensive infrastructure-related costs such as siting and building transmission towers. A cost-efficient approach to expanding a grid’s infrastructure might sound tempting to companies in an industry undergoing radical transformation and decarbonization.

But Emrod’s technology is limited in its bulk power distribution capability. The current figure for efficiency of Emrod’s systems in transmission stands at 60%, a percentage figure that does not compare well with existing figures. Emrod’s systems function in the frequency band reserved for Industrial, Scientific, and Medical (ISM) uses. “High voltage power lines need high efficiency to make sense economically,” says Kushnir and adds that they should be able to increase their efficiency levels by next year.

In the meanwhile, the startup is focusing on niche use cases in the near term. According to Kushnir, such use cases typically involve transmission of a “few hundred kWs” of power over a kilometers of distance. “Efficiency (in such projects) is less important than capex requirements,” he says, referring to the costs associated with such projects.

As such, the company is focused on distribution, and not transmission, projects in the near-term. “We can expedite many power projects that have been postponed due to cost or difficulty,” says Kushnir. Bringing power to mountainous terrain and hard-to-reach rural areas are examples where Emrod’s technology is useful. A clear line-of-sight is a pre-requisite for efficient power generation in such cases.

And what happens when birds intrude that path? Kushnir says their systems are equipped with radar and laser curtains and that detect intruding objects. The transmitting antenna then reduces the power going through that location and redirects it to other locations, explains Kushnir. “The idea is that the beam never sees anything other than clear air,” he says.       

 

A New Market

Within a very short period, a new market for power beaming has emerged in the energy industry. Many startups are attempting experiments using the technology. But the journey to this market has been a century in the making. The technology associated with it has moved forward in fits and starts.

Development took place only when funding was made available by governments. Kushnir calls it the politics associated with innovation. “It (science) is not this all engulfing, exploratory, pushing out of all human capabilities at the same time,” he says. “There are other vectors involved.”

Those vectors continue to play a role in the incipient market for power beaming systems. For example, power beaming startups must contend with varying regulations in each industry where they operate.

But it may all be worth it if their moonshots, such as transmission of power from space, change the makeup of the energy industry. “When a consumer has the power to decide who he or she can buy power from regardless of physical constraints…then they can influence power generation and hasten the energy transition,” says Kushnir.

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