Ethical Implications of Wireless Power

In modern times and a world that continually demands more and more mobility and accessibility, the trend of wireless has spread like wildfire. Progressively, it has been spreading to the field of power transfer as well. When you combine the two, power transfer and wireless: Welcome to the world of wireless power transfer. This concept of wireless power has been fantasized, flirted upon, and re-flirted upon for several decades now in hopes to create a world with self-sustaining-like, mobile, and highly personalized electronics. Wireless power transfer technology can potentially reduce or eliminate the need for wires and batteries. Think about the last time you tripped on a cord, or forgot you laptop power cord at home. Would you continue using conventional wired power if the option of wireless power was available? The answer is probably a no and the choice would probably, instead, be wireless power.
However, it should be noted that wireless power is still in the research and development phase, and is starting to crawl out into the demonstration phase, so it is halfway in between like a transitional fossil. Even so, wireless power simultaneously emanates promising benefits to society, the economy, the environment, as well as science and technology. Hence, wireless power is a topic worthy of further exploration.
In the spirit of exploration on wireless power, this paper is a contribution to the research of wireless power. While there are many forms of wireless power transfer in research and development, this paper focuses on a specific kind of wireless power transfer method: resonant inductive coupling. The reason our research focuses on resonant inductive coupling is because it has many relatable and practical potential applications. The benefits of resonant inductive coupling lie mainly in medical applications and consumer electronics. Specific applications that will be discussed are wirelessly powered medical instruments and implants, and wireless charging for electric cars and consumer electronics.
Unfortunately, the infancy of resonant inductive coupling, and all wireless power technologies, for that matter, leads to potential drawbacks and ethical dilemmas. The scope of the ethical dilemmas associated with resonant inductive coupling discussed will be in the grounds of health impacts and environmental impacts. The drawbacks that will be discussed are the uncertain and unknown effects of exposure to the magnetic field produced, and the e-waste produced due to the production of the technology, and the replacement of previous wired and battery powered technology infrastructure.

In the final analysis, by weighing the benefits and drawbacks of resonant inductive coupling, the hope is to reach a solution to the ethical dilemmas that this technology presents. With this final goal in mind, we can begin to examine the research topic of resonant inductive coupling in detail.


 The concept of wireless power transmission has been around since the beginning of the 20th century when first thought of by Nikola Tesla (Leyh, 2008, p. 1). His idea, electrostatic induction, involves using a Tesla coil like device to create alternating and extremely high potential differences between two pieces of metal. Between these pieces of metal an electric field would be alternating back and forth releasing energy to be captured by a receiver. He thought this would be useful in a room where the lights could me moved anywhere with no need for a cord. He also theorized that by building two huge Tesla coils, one on each side of the Atlantic Ocean, that he could create this effect across the entire globe. Between then and now, many studies have been conducted on wireless power transfer. The motivation for wireless power transmission research is due to the limitations of wires and cables for power transmission, power transfer efficiency, and for easy access to electricity anywhere.
Since Tesla's original experiments, researchers have gone to great lengths to find safer and more efficient methods of wireless power transfer. The most promising technology that has been developed is known as resonant inductive coupling. This technology utilizes the fundamentals of wave harmonics to create a powerful link of magnetic waves from 2 coils that resonate at the same frequency of harmonic magnetic waves. Researchers have shown this technology to have very high efficiency, many experiments showing up to 80% efficiency at distances of 2 to 3 coil radii away from the source coil (“roadway powered,” 1994).

This type of wireless power transmission has many applications in which traditional wired power can’t be used. Many of these applications are medical. Many medical implants require a persistent power source. In a traditional wired set-up that actually means wires being set through someones body from the implant to a spot on the surface of the body so that the implants power source can be charged. The wires protruding from under the skin cause a large drop in quality of life for patients with implants as the leads from these wires can not be shorted under any circumstance, which includes any contact with water. In addition to the risk of shorting the leads these leads coming out of the body leave a huge risk of infection for these patients. Some of those infections cause hospitalization or death. But with wireless resonant induction power the entire charging system can be completely within the patients body (Hickey 2011).


The picture above (Hickey 2011) shows a simple demonstration of the wireless coil technology being used around the house of a patient with an implanted heart pump. The receiving coil used within the patients heart pump receives power from the transmitting coils around the room and allows the patient to have a heart pump and its power system contained completely inside his or her body.

While there are many useful applications to wireless power technology there are also many downsides. Wireless power has a limited range, this is similar to wired power which has a range of the cord length, however with wired power you have a set distance that is clearly visible, with wireless power your range is more like wi-fi, where you have a strong signal up close but you rapidly lose power and efficiency once you exceed a certain range. With Resonant induction coupling this range is determined by the radius of the coil, with high efficiency happening in a range of a few radii of the coil. Also, wireless power, with its efficiency of 80% is a bit less than the efficiency of regular wired systems (“roadway powered” 1994). More of the power put into a circuit reaches its destination in a wired circuit because in a wireless set-up some power goes into creating the magnetic field that transmits the power from one coil to another (Glindogdu 2011). This energy loss however is made up for in that it is simple to detect when a device no longer needs power and the power can then be turned off to save energy where as in a traditional setup power will continue to be used after a device is fully charged (Branscombe 2009). A large problem with wireless power is that it would require a huge effort to set up. The infrastructure requires the transmission source coils to be placed in close proximity of anywhere that your electronics will be used or charged as well as receiving coil devices on anything receiving the wireless power (“roadway powered” 1994). There would be a significant cost in switching from wired to wireless power especially since most devices currently manufactured are made to use wired power. The coils themselves, however, would be fairly cheap to manufacture as they only need a capacitor and some loops of wire. The more difficult and expensive part would be designing the coils as they must be tuned to the proper frequency depending on the capacitor, the length of the wire and the number of loops in the wire (Kurs, 2007). This task would not be difficult for electrical engineers.


The ethical implications of wireless power have far reaching influences on humanity. Ethical tensions exist when including human health and environmental benefaction into the implementation of new and uncertain wireless power technology. Proponents and opponents exist on both sides of this topic, and each brings up a host of dilemmas and issues to consider. Wireless power in general has the potential to impact every person who uses any sort of electric power and therefore is a pervasive and current topic of interest for the general public. The world as a global society and civilization should be intrigued and excited for this new technology but also be aware of potential drawbacks and downfalls.

The stakeholders involved in wireless energy include scientific researchers, environmentalists, health providers, energy producers, and everyday citizens that utilize electricity. Proponent and opponent stakeholders exist on both sides of wireless power discussion and are presented as such in the following section of this paper. To first address proponents, environmentalists and health providers claim the top positions.


Potential Benefits Derived from Wireless Power:


Using wireless power for everyday and commercial use has great potential environmental benefits. This “new” form of power will replace the use of batteries, one of the most toxic contributors to landfills. According to Eric Giler, “40 billion disposable batteries are built every year to use within a few inches or feet of where there is very inexpensive power” (TED: Eric Giler Demos Wireless Power). These batteries inevitably are used and discarded into landfills, causing environment degradation and poisoning. Large volumes of production aren’t the only downfall to batteries. They are inefficient, unsustainable, and are potentially dangerous when corroded. Once batteries enter landfills, they slowly erode and leech toxic lead and acid into soil and have the potential to poison water sources for neighboring communities. Having wireless power available in the homes of billions of people in the near future will inhibit the production, use, and accumulation of batteries and dramatically reduce the leeching of lead and acid into soil. By using wireless power as an alternative to wires and batteries, energy costs will also reduce, saving homeowners untold amounts of income.
In terms of efficiency, wireless power has its benefits. “Wireless power could actually be more efficient than standard charging, with intelligent systems that identify devices and monitor the power level, replacing multiple adapters, and turning off the power when a device is charged” (Branscombe 2009). Energy is a valuable resource and must be used with as much restraint as possible. Having an energy source that uses “smart” technology in terms of only using power needed and no more, is going to maximize use of generated energy. This indirectly reduces the dependence on fossil fuels, one of the leading problems of our generation. In terms of the ethics of energy conservation, doing away with extreme energy consumption and reducing use of energy in general allows wireless power to become an environmentally sound technology that has the potential to be implemented on a wide scale. For example, a potential application of near field wireless power on a large scale is use for charging electric and hybrid cars and buses. Instead of having a wire plug in for these vehicles, as currently exists today, the wireless technology can be integrated into parking lots and bus stations, allowing charging to occur instantly and without the actual effort of “plugging in”. This would allow a seamless integration of hybrid and electric cars into commercial use on a large scale. Particularly for city bus systems, wireless charging stations could be made available at every bus terminal or even every stop, completely ridding the need for diesel and gasoline use. This would not only save time and reduce servicing logistics, but also have environmental implications by reducing the carbon footprints of each bus since power will be generated electrically as compared to with fossil fuels (“Roadway Powered” 1994). Clearly, the environmental implications of wireless power are large and far-reaching but the ethical benefits extend to health benefits as well.

The health considerations of wireless power are one of the biggest assets to the design and have the potential to completely reinvent the way hospitals, medical implants, and home care operated. The technology can be implemented in hospitals all over the world to eliminate the use of messy wires and unreliable batteries. Medical implants and home care today completely rely on grid power and batteries, literally tying down patients to wires and continual replacement devices. Having wireless power available in homes completely frees patients from their medical condition by allowing power to be given remotely from simply walking near the power provider. “Using the wireless system means no power cord poking through the skin, dramatically reducing the risk of infection and improving the patients quality of life” (Hickey 2011). As previously stated in the background section of this paper, not having to replace devices due to battery run-down signifies the reduction of necessary invasive surgeries and risks such as infections and disease.


Wireless power also has the potential to save thousands of lives every year by reducing the number of deaths associated with wiring and electrical problems in the home setting. Electric shock, fire, burns, explosion and electrocution are all dangers associated with wire technology in homes (Barrett 2004). “The home was singled out as one of the prime locations for electrical accidents that resulted in deaths in the UK for the years investigated. Approximately 46% of all fatalities due to electric current occur in the home, in England and Wales” (Barrett 2004). Figure 1 illustrates the number of cases in two years of electric accidents in the UK alone and Figure 7 shows the number of deaths from 1999-2005 from electric currents in home settings. Wireless power could potentially reduce these figures by eliminating electrical outlets and wires in the home and implementing low-maintenance coils. In terms of health benefits, wireless power has the potential to change the lives of millions of people, a benefit that surpasses nearly all others. From an ethical standpoint, a question we must ask ourselves is that if the current technology exists that could potentially save thousands of lives, are we as a society morally obligated to implement these measures, even if there are some negative impacts associated? To better grasp the full complexity of this issue, the downsides to wireless power are next addressed.


The Pitfalls of Wireless Power:


As with any new technology, there are costs associated with the benefits that can potentially arise from using wireless power. The biggest concern for most involved in the creation of large scale implementation is simply that wireless power is rather new in terms of design and wide spread use.

The most notable opponents of wireless power are those involved with battery power production, fossil fuel extraction, and current electric companies. These people have a vested interest in preserving traditional wire power and limit the production of wireless power.

Along with development of new technology comes the uncertainty of devices on human health. The health impacts of being exposed to waves of energy are still in the research phase and need to be further developed before mass production of this energy source can be produced. This is the one rather serious drawback that must be considered when designing wireless power sources. Again, posing a question to our society, are the unknown, long-term impacts worth the risk of implementing these devices now in order to save lives? Are the lives lost today more valuable than the potential lives lost in the future? These difficult questions are serious dilemmas that scientists, technological leaders and government officials must face in the near future.
On the environmental side of this debate, the argument is made that we currently have infrastructure that is designed specifically for wires and electrical outlets. Completely retrofitting the globe for wireless power is going to use a great deal of resources and also generate large quantities of waste in the form of outdated and “useless” electrical devices. This waste will undoubtedly end up in landfills, taking thousands of years to degrade and potentially leeching toxic chemicals into the soil. Phosphor, chromium, lead, mercury and barium are just a few of the compounds used in electronics that will pose environmental problems with electronic waste, or e-waste (Dittke). These compounds are considered “persistent, bio-accumulators, meaning they linger in the environment and accumulate inorganic tissues, causing cancer, nerve damage and reproductive disorders” (Dittke).

Stakeholders against wireless power argue that improvements can and should be made on wireless power technology to maximize health benefits as well as reduce waste due to installation before this type of power becomes commercially available (Zhang 2011).


    In conclusion, it is clear that resonant inductive coupling power transmission would be extremely beneficial to society if it were implemented in homes and home electronics. From an environmental standpoint, this technology could replace disposable batteries and cords, reducing dangerous chemicals and potential for poisoning communities. Resonant inductive coupling also has health benefits and with no need for cords life would simply become easier. Team Triple E offers a solution to the ethical dilemas raised in this paper:
    To start with we should begin replacing household outlets with a wireless power transmitter in each new house and have battery shaped coils to fit into home electronics. The companies that currently manufacture batteries and components for wired technology could move into manufacturing the new wireless technology. Many consumers would appreciate the ease of use of the wireless technology and the market would surely open up allowing these companies to continue to thrive if they can switch to the new technology. These homes would still have traditional wired power for the consideration that there are still many devices are currently manufactured with cords.
    As wireless power begins to grow more of these devices would be manufactured with a wireless option and the use of wireless power will become widespread in new homes. In addition, a power source coil could be manufactured to be powered from a traditional plug in to give old home owners the option of upgrading their homes to wireless power. Because only new homes and new devices would contain the wireless technology there would not be a large abundance of electronic waste caused by scrapping old wired electronics. The transition would be somewhat slow and take many years to show up in a majority of places. However, switching to wireless power would increase the efficiency and convenience of these electronics, while lowering the environmental impact in the long run. Some people will continue to worry about the health risks of being exposed to the magnetic fields caused by the resonant inductive coupling, however there is currently little to no evidence showing that there are any health risks posed by this technology. Being a new technology, it cannot be determined whether it causes long term health problems and more research on this topic must be performed.
    Many people see the huge benefits offered by resonant inductive coupling. There are medical patients who can be helped with this technology. In addition, wireless power could help reduce the damage our power infrastructure causes to the environment. Also, risks involved with traditional wires become irrelevant. Another benefit is the incredible convenience posed by having all your electronics powered and charged without wires to annoy you or constrict your movement. Other people however have their doubts. There are many companies who manufacture the electronic parts that would be replaced with inductive resonance technology. Also some researchers have doubts that it is safe to have the magnetic fields used in the resonant inductive coupling flowing through our bodies. Another large downside is the difficulty and large cost of setting up and implementing the wireless power system as most currently manufactured consumer electronics do not contain the necessary parts.    
    The disadvantages of wireless power are greatly outweighed by the benefits and from an ethical standpoint, thus it is necessary to further develop wireless power technology to the point of large-scale production. We have the means and design; it is now a matter of obligation to create wireless power on mass scales for the betterment of society.