Assaulting the Battery

Assaulting the Battery

What wireless aficionados really want are devices that work like they have an Energizer Bunny inside, preferably on steroids. We want them to keep going and going...but they don't. Enter the Los Alamos National Labs, where scientists are going beyond Wi-Fi and radio frequency technology, thanks to a technique called "modulated reflectance." The bonus of such an approach is that it dramatically reduces the demand on your device's battery.

I'm writing on my notebook computer in my yard. Intermittently, I send and receive e-mail or check a fact via the Web. My broadband Wireless LAN (WLAN) card chats with my base station located in my home 40 yards away. I find comfort in the card's blinking green light. It tells me all these nifty wireless gizmos are working happily in unison ­ except for the stupid electric cord, stretching from my computer through my garden across my deck to a wall socket. If I move abruptly left, I decapitate a dahlia, move right and snap goes a dragon.

It turns out that my WLAN card sucks battery juice like a Chevy Tahoe drinks gas. My notebook battery used to be good for 2­3 hours, but wireless cards reduced it to a fleeting 45 minutes. When I attend conferences, where wireless is essential to my work, I must jockey for a seat near an outlet. I used to carry one battery, now I need two. Nowadays, I don't go anywhere without my power cord. When I look at that blinking green light, I hear sounds in my mind like a straw makes over ice in an empty glass.

Don't get me wrong. I love wireless. It's a killer app that begets other killer apps. Really great stuff is coming out that takes computing where no one has gone before. Little Vocera, for example, makes a Star Trekian security badge for employees in enterprise campuses and health facilities. The badges are actually wireless, peer-to-peer communication devices much like Kirk and Picard used on their respective Enterprises. IBM is pushing its concept for a handsfree, wireless headgear computer for field technicians so they can see and interact with colleagues and data while climbing utility poles.

Wireless lingo is evolving from techie to consumer. "Base stations" are becoming "hotspots" and "802.11b" is evolving into "Wi-Fi," which is no longer SciFi. New hotspots are exploding like microwave popcorn at the three-minute mark; they're in airports, hotels, and a Starbucks near you. Wi-Fi is here and now. It promises a freedom that just about everyone wants at a time when there's really not much else exciting happening in technology.

But we who love technology have heard promises before. Little workaround problems all too often prove to be barbed wire barriers defended by mounted machine gunners. Until this battery problem gets solved, it seems to me we're doomed to replace one wire with another. It shouldn't be like that.

Now I've learned that new hope is being promised by the friendly folk at Los Alamos National Labs. Yep, those are the same people who brought you Fat Man, Little Boy, and the hydrogen bomb. It's where Claude Fuchs and Ethel Rosenberg's ratty kid brother stole secrets and where the keys to our nuclear stockpile are still held today.

I first learned of this scoop from an old acquaintance named Ron Dennis who's consulting at Los Alamos. He assured me that if I tell you about it, he would not have to kill me. I guess we'll soon find out!

It seems that years ago the lab's mission was expanded beyond nuclear weaponry to include most areas of scientific research. It has become a playpen for big-picture researchers. Ron's job is to take the products of that pure technology and expedite commercial adoption through private sector licensing and partnering.

The first is "INFICOMM," a government acronym for "Infinite Communications," meaning I may not need that extension cord much longer.

Today, Wi-Fi uses radio frequency (RF) technology to interact. A base station pings my notebook computer using its power source. My WLAN card takes a big toke on the notebook battery, then replies. After a few rounds, my wireless has listless lithium.

INFICOMM promises to replace RF with something the scientists call modulated reflectance. A modulated reflectance­equipped base station will be able to signal your INFICOMM wireless device, which in turn reflects back to the base station without using a single microwatt of your device's battery.

"If you're looking at a rose with a flashlight in the dark," Ron illustrates, "the rose isn't transmitting. It's reflecting illumination from the flashlight. All the power is in your flashlight. That's exactly how modulated reflectance works."

This is all still lab science, but maybe not for long. Scientists have recently transmitted and received video over several kilometers. They expect to have a demonstrable model for prospective partners by summer's end.

The results could mean a cellphone battery would only have to power the display and amplify sound, but not transmit voice, enabling it to run for weeks or even months. My notebook would be good for hours once again. In the enterprise, INFICOMM technology could detect movement and "tag" inventory using zero power. With modulated reflectance, we can only speculate what future applications will look like.

An economic upside is that a whole new generation of modulation reflectance devices will be needed. This technology, if it works, gives everyone a compelling reason to go out and buy new cellphones, handhelds, or notebooks. An environmental boost is that fewer batteries will get dumped.

I won't need an extension cord in my yard anymore. But how will I get those teeny carrots into my wireless device to feed my little bunny?

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