The power cable is holding us back

power I spent some time over the weekend chatting with my friend Eric Warnke, who owns and operates the Third on Whyte Internet cafe here in Edmonton. We talked about a bunch of things, but mostly about wireless mesh networks. I’ve been writing about “wireless everywhere” for over five years now (since Imagine Cup 2003 to be exact), and Eric is one of those guys who is actually making it happen.

Eric has been experimenting with both the Meraki and Open Mesh technologies recently. There are others available as well, and we briefly brainstormed about creating our own little devices. The technology for extending 802.11g wireless is actually surprisingly simple and mature. And on the horizon of course, is WiMax and a host of other emerging technologies.

The problem with all of them, is power.

Even if the hardware becomes extremely energy efficient, each part still requires at least a little bit of power. The obvious solution for a mesh network with nodes located outdoors is to use solar panels, except that Edmonton’s climate is very unfriendly to such an idea (and don’t forget that solar panels are still relatively inefficient). That leaves us with either batteries or a power cable.

The main problem with batteries at the moment is that they need to be quite large if you want them to last for any reasonable about of time. Think of a laptop battery or the battery for an electric drill – each is about four times the size of the wireless components, and probably ten times the weight. Then there’s the problem of replacing the batteries when they die, or changing them when they need recharging.

So we’re stuck with the power cable. Despite all the technological progress we’ve made over the last 100 years, we’re still tethered by the power cable.

The first two chapters of Nicholas Carr’s book The Big Switch provide an extremely engaging history of Henry Burden, Thomas Edison, Samuel Insull, and the other individuals who were instrumental in making electricity the utility it is today. I like this part in particular:

Unlike lesser inventors, Edison didn’t just create individual products; he created entire systems. He first imagined the whole, then he built the necessary pieces, making sure they all fit together seamlessly.

Of course, Edison’s DC system eventually lost out to the superior AC. Still, I can’t help but think that we desperately need a modern day Edison. Just as Edison re-imagined urban gaslight systems, we need someone to re-imagine the modern electrical system.

Is wireless energy transfer the answer? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s better to start with a question – how can we eliminate the need for contact? Or at least make that contact less restrictive? For instance, instead of connecting a wireless node to a cable inside a lamppost, why can’t I just stick the node on the lamppost itself? That would be a good first step.

We need “power everywhere” before we’ll ever get to “wireless everywhere”. Unfortunately, batteries, solar panels, and other technologies aren’t getting us any closer to that reality at the moment. Surely there must be something else then?

Largest Consumer Electronics Recall Ever

Post ImageThis is one record you don’t want to be setting. Dell has announced what the Consumer Product Safety Commission is calling “the largest safety recall in the history of the consumer electronics industry.” That’s right, 4.1 million laptop batteries installed in Dell machines between April 2004 and July 18th, 2006. Is yours one of them?

Dell’s press release states the recall covers the following machines, so be aware! Dell Latitude D410, D500, D505, D510, D520, D600, D610, D620, D800, D810; Inspiron 6000, 8500, 8600, 9100, 9200, 9300, 500m, 510m, 600m, 6400, E1505, 700m, 710m, 9400, E1705; and Dell Precision M20, M60, M70 and M90 mobile workstations; and XPS, XPS Gen2, XPS M170 and XPS M1710. Also, you’re to go here, and to pop that batt post haste.

Even worse – the batteries were made by Sony, not Dell, which means other laptops might also be at risk if they too use Sony batteries (creative sabotage?). I’m pretty confident my Toshiba is safe. Keep an eye on this story!

I wonder what they do with the returned batteries? I think they should put them all in a big pile and explode it. That would make a great video! They could use it as a PR stunt of some sort. Though I’m sure the environmentalists would have a field day. Oh well.

Read: Engadget

Paper thin batteries!

Post ImageLike everyone else, I have far too many battery powered devices and not enough long lasting, reliable batteries! As a result, I am quite interested whenever I hear about some sort of advance in the battery market, like the new paper thin batteries developed by NEC:

NEC has debuted some ultra-thin and flexible quick charging batteries named ORB, for Organic Radical Battery. We’re having a hard time deciding what is the coolest part about these; their 0.3mm thickness that allows them to be flexible, or the fact that they can be recharged in about 30 seconds. The organic radical materials inside the battery are in an “electrolyte-permeated gel state,” which is supposedly about halfway between a solid and a liquid. This helps ions make a smooth move (no, the other one), reducing resistance, allowing the batteries to charge faster. 1 square centimeter will give you about 1 miliwatt hour.

These batteries will be useful for things like RFID tags, electronic paper, and wearable computers. If they can boost the power though, maybe they’d make their way into normal laptops and other small computing devices. Even something like the iPod Nano would benefit from super thin batteries!

Read: Engadget

Fuel cell powered MP3 player

Post ImageI like to think that my Zen Touch has a pretty damn good battery life, at least when compared to other audio players like the iPod. Not as good as the new fuel cell powered MP3 player that Toshiba has developed though:

Toshiba, who wears the belt for world’s smallest methanol fuel cell, has now developed two fuel-cell powered MP3 player prototypes. A flash-based player measuring 1.4 x 4.3 x 0.8-inches is said to run for 35 hours on a single 3.5ml charge of highly concentrated methanol while a hard drive based player swells to 2.6 x 4.9 x 1.1-inches and runs for about 60 hours on a single 10ml charge. Those dimensions are pretty sweet (the 60GB ipod is 2.4 x 4.1 x .75 inches by comparison) and will certainly get smaller once optimized for production.

That’s pretty crazy, no?! Though I am not sure if storing methanol would be that much better than just plugging the player into the wall every now and then,

Read: Engadget