Wireless charging for a more sustainable future?
Chargers and power supplies are the last cords that clutter up our daily lives. Internet, the cellular network, our earphones and even our screens (thanks to "casting" technologies) can now connect to our devices without the need for a wire. Who would like to go back to the good old days when we had to plug a network cable into our computer to have internet access or even use a landline phone? No one. The user-friendliness provided by these wireless technologies is now part of our daily lives and is taken for granted. We all expect to have access to WiFi when we go to a coffee shop or at the airport; these technologies are the new standard. Why isn’t it the case for charging?
Wireless charging is therefore the logical continuation of this technological development to cut the last remaining wires in our life while offering us the ultimate user-friendliness when using our electronic devices daily. However, one aspect that is rarely addressed when talking about wireless charging is the positive impacts that this technology will have on the environment in the long term.
According to the “Global E-waste Monitor 2020” report by the UN1 in 2019, there were 53.6 million tons of electronic waste globally which represents a 21% increase since 2014. Of all this electronic waste only 17.4% are collected and recycled. The report also predicts that this quantity will increase to 74.7 million tonnes by 2030. But where does all this electronic waste come from?
One of the first source that can be highlighted, besides overconsumption, is the abundance of electronic chargers. Every time we buy a new electronic device, we also get a new charger and eventually we end up having a box full of old chargers. Electronics manufacturers need to include a new charger with every product as there are so many types of chargers on the market and they must ensure that you have one that will fit with your devices. The arrival of the USB-C standard has significantly reduced the number of types of charger from 30 in 2009 to only 3 in 2020 for mobile phones2. Last year the European Union adopted a law mandating the use of the USB-C standard for every mobile phone that will be sold in European land trying to reduce electronic waste2. However, the problem persists with laptops and big corporations like Apple who oppose to electronic standards and continue to use their proprietary charging standard (Lightning) to charge their devices.
As mobility is increasingly present in our society, a second problem emerges with wired chargers: the lifespan of these chargers is short, really short. Nowadays, no one thinks that they are going to have a charger available for their device when they are going to a client meeting or in a coffee shop. Charging isn’t like internet yet. It is therefore essential to always have your chargers with you. The wear of the connectors, the wires and the case ends up accelerating since the charger is constantly handled. After a few months (2 years for the most robust) the chargers are no longer functional and must be replaced. Furthermore, if chargers don’t wear out overtime they are very often lost or forgotten at the airport or in a coffee shop. It is therefore crucial to develop much more sustainable chargers for the future of our planet.
The true energy cost of chargers
When we talk about the environmental impact of chargers, we often talk about their energy efficiency. This efficiency is defined as the energy that enters the battery in comparison with the energy taken from the power grid. So, the more a charger is efficient, the less energy is needed to charge a single battery. It is therefore important to make very efficient chargers if we want to reduce our energy consumption and at the same time our carbon footprint. Yes, but no. If we only consider the direct energy cost, it is true. However, by considering all the energy costs of a charger, from its manufacture to the end of its life, it can be shown that the energy required to manufacture it is greater than 2 years of energy supplied to charge the device3.
Let's take a concrete example to fully understand the impact of these facts :
- Charger A, having 100% efficiency with a lifespan of 1 year.
- Charger B with 75% efficiency with a lifespan of 1 year and 6 months.
- The energy required to manufacture the chargers is the same, for example 1000Wh to facilitate calculations.
- The energy supplied to the device is equivalent in both situations to 500Wh.
After 3 years of use, how much energy will each type of charger consume on average per year? Charger A will have consumed on average 1500Wh/year compared to 1333Wh/year on average for charger B. As we can see on this graph:
Charger A consume less energy at the beginning but on the long term it is more energy-consuming since you have to replace it more frequently.
Clearly, charger lifespan has a far greater impact than efficiency on the environment at efficiencies. Losing your charger easily or wearing it out quickly has a much greater impact on your carbon footprint than having a less "efficient" charger. In the long run, we as a society should change the way we charge our devices with more sustainable chargers (better lifespan), even though this may reduce efficiency.
Smart wireless charging infrastructure
To reduce electronic waste caused by wired chargers, it is essential to develop a smart wireless charging technology. This wireless charging technology will have to be integrated into our infrastructures in the same way as WiFi and 5G. Several characteristics are essential to the commercial success of a wireless charging technological infrastructure:
- Wireless charging should be user-friendly. The charger must have spatial freedom. In other words, the devices don’t have to be perfectly aligned with the charger unlike inductive charging. In addition, the charger should work every time. The charger must be simple to use, robust and smart.
- Wireless charging must be interoperable between various brands, but also between different types of devices such as laptops, tablets, "smartphones" and all other small electronic accessories. It is therefore crucial that the same charger can charge at different powers. An international standard like AirFuel Alliance is fundamental to this interoperability by setting the guidelines.
- Wireless chargers should last much longer than traditional wired chargers and should be able to improve over time. In an ideal situation these chargers should have a lifespan equivalent to the piece of furniture it is fixed to (over 10 years).
Imagine a world where every surface can charge each of your electronic devices. Imagine walking into a cafe or a client meeting room, setting your laptop and "smartphone" on the table and it charges instantly if needed. It is exactly this world that could become a reality with ELIA, a wireless charger developed by GPHY based on a new wireless charging technology: magnetic resonant coupling (read this article to know more). As the first generations of wireless chargers are rather limited in terms of performance, GPHY is the first company to offer a concrete solution that meets each criteria to create an intelligent wireless charging infrastructure that is sustainable over time. To know more about ELIA click here.
By 2022 the battery charger market is expected to reach $25B per year4. So it's up to us as a society to decide whether this market has a sustainable future or will continue to impact our planet. Wireless charging will forever change our daily lives and will have concrete impacts on reducing e-waste in the long term. It is therefore time to change the way we charge our devices.
Wireless is more.
 AirFuel webinaire, The Truth About Wireless Power Efficiency, https://vimeo.com/459524385