The quest for Nikola Tesla’s wireless power technology

right now we're wandering through what's basically an archaeological site and what's being dug up is a lost laboratory the last standing lab of inventor and futurist nikola tesla well i'll walk you into what is the front of his laboratory this lab was supposed to be the proving ground for tesla's most ambitious idea a wireless power and telecommunications system he imagined the construction of a global network of towers that would electrify the world without wires so this was the grandiose front door okay so clearly that didn't happen but this just goes on and on it's amazing but the thing tesla was chasing ubiquitous wireless electricity physicists and engineers are still chasing it today and making tantalizing progress so was tesla onto something here [Music] the list of nikola tesla's inventions and contributions is staggering he invented induction motors and the first hydroelectric power plant he's responsible for our use of alternating current power and he's one of the fathers of radio communication his patents number in the hundreds and then there's this curiosity the tesla coil it's a clever bit of machinery that functioned as a sort of tech demo it helped tesla show that wireless power transfer was very possible the inner workings of this thing get complicated fast so we're not going to go too deep at its most basic a tesla coil takes in electricity with high current and transforms it into high voltage this creates a changing magnetic field that can induce an electric field in a nearby object say like a light bulb so when i bring this fluorescent bulb within range the current excites the gas and voila an led works differently but the result is the same in this case a little electric field is generated between the prongs of the light and it powers on as if it were plugged in as a source of wireless power a tesla coil isn't really practical one that's big enough to power say a room full of lights might induce a nasty current in you it also demonstrates one of the limitations of wireless power transfer as you move away from the power source the strength of the field drops off very quickly every time you double the distance the field drops off by a power of six and that's an issue of physics there's really no getting around it tesla didn't fully understand his invention the way we do now no one at the time did but when he saw the result it was enough to start him thinking much much bigger [Music] this was the stage for tesla's ambitions a lab on long island known as wardencliff it's not much to look at now but in 1901 tesla scraped enough money together to build a massive tower this octagon right here is where the tower once stood almost 57 meters high the structure showcased some of the same technology as the tesla coil and it was supposed to replicate the tesla coil's party trick too so he envisioned building a very large structure that could transmit power to an entire city and you wouldn't have wired power or even metered power you simply would have power brian field is a physicist and professor at farmingdale state college he gave us the full rundown of the tower's proposed functions he also envisioned being able to power boats at sea and be able to uh power things in flight and on top of that he wanted the same system to be able to broadcast information all these plans hinged on tesla's belief that both the ground and the sky were good conductors of electricity basically that electricity could be transported through them so he imagined a network of towers some zapping power into the ground and some pulling it back up for local use the towers might also shoot electricity through the air like lightning lighting up cities from the sky and powering airplanes they'd even one-up radio transmissions of the time by sending text and images like early fax machines he just needed more towers and money he had already drawn up plans to start to build another one outside of glasgow and another one in newfoundland as a way of transmitting data across the atlantic so what would have happened if tesla threw the lever and brought his invention online so tesla was an unarguably a brilliant person but he was also very much a product of his time and there was a few things that was missing from his scientific knowledge we now know that the earth and the sky are not good conductors in fact they're good insulators of electricity that means the tower itself was predicated on faulty science and doomed for failure which gazing back from the year 2020 seems obvious you have to understand that this structure was built before it was commonly accepted that there were atoms let alone to understand how conductors worked at a molecular level that was all a complete mystery to scientists of the time brian looks back on the whole enterprise a little more charitably i think it's much more an example of of somebody who was who was building on good ideas of the time and didn't know what he didn't know and that was what was the shortcoming here it's been more than 100 years since tesla's efforts at warden cliff yet when it comes to electricity we still live in a profoundly wired world that universal blanket of power that tesla envisioned still hasn't arrived why well one reason is that our technology has changed but the behavior of electric and magnetic fields in hasn't power and transfer distance i think that we are limited by physics now we don't know this moment now chris me researches wireless power at san diego state he says that while we're stuck with the laws of physics upgrades and materials and other technology has led to real progress one result is the wireless cell phone charger the physics in play aren't so different from our tesla coil demo and the transfer distance is modest but it's practical and reasonably efficient things that were out of reach for tesla but we used the same series now why didn't he make it well we couldn't make it work today the reason because he didn't have the material we have whether it's these wires ferrite that can use intensive field secondly he didn't have the device to generate a high frequency electrical power chris and others are looking to scale the technology further to charge say an electric car it could drive onto a charging pad in your garage or even charge while you're at a rest stop in the middle of a road trip other techniques have allowed researchers to do safely what a tesla coil can't power small devices at room scale distances using magnetic fields though there are still trade-offs in this case the entire room needs to be outfitted with a metal skeleton for even greater distances you need a medium other than electromagnetic fields there's been a bunch of development around beaming energy using ultrasound microwaves or lasers chris thinks these techniques have merit but largely for low power applications efficiency is the boogeyman here because energy is wasted in its translation from one carrier to another considering the efficiency of this microwave so air uh where's the laundry stairs and you you if you want to receive hundreds of kilowatts you'll be needing megawatts of power and to transfer and it's transfer station and you will be generating a huge amount of loss which becomes some sort of heat this all adds up to something less than tesla's wireless power vision it's scattered niche progress a fine tuning of techniques a narrowing of applications not a rebirth of the way we use power that's more of a tesla thing i think normal people like myself you know my mystery and my colleagues we're doing uh the work where we are we're sitting on the shoulders of these giants i'm working just a little bit incremental here and there tesla is different he's the one transferring the world that's the big difference so what ultimately happened at wharton cliff and to tesla the tower was sold for scrap in 1917 and tesla was forced to move on tesla had some very large achievements early in life and to make a metaphor he always made big swings right and he continued to make big swings in his life he just never quite connected the way he did when he was younger and eventually he was in his own lifetime somewhat forgotten and eventually passed away living in a new york city hotel but of course tesla's legacy looks totally different today his work on ac power has helped define the past century he has a unit of magnetic induction and a very flashy car company named in his honor he's a hero among physicists and engineers around the world he is a hero i i i don't think you know other than maybe einstein and who else has surpassed him [Music] and even though we still have to wire our light bulbs he got one prediction right on the money wireless communication it's hard not to wonder what else he'd dream up if he only knew what we know now i think he'd be happy that we do have access to text and photos instantaneously from all over the world but what i'd really like to think about tesla is he'd be thinking about what comes next and that's what i'd really like to ask him about not what he thinks about today but what he thinks about our tomorrow hey everyone thanks for watching we'd like to give a special shout out to the folks at the tesla science center who allowed us to visit warden cliff right now they are restoring the lab and if you'd like updates on that project the link can be found in the description below

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