Powerlight Technologies’ laser-based power beaming system will be demonstrated in the David Taylor Model Basin of the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Maryland. (USNRL via YouTube)
Wireless power transmission has been science fiction for more than a century, but now PowerLight Technologies is turning it into science fact … with fucking laser beams.
“Laser power is closer than you think,” Richard Gustafson, CEO of PowerLight, told GeekWire this week.
This is much more than a laboratory experiment: Gustafson said his company, headquartered in Kent, Washington, completed a $ 9.5 million demonstration project for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.
In 2019, PowerLight demonstrated that its power beaming system can transmit 400 watts of power – enough to power up a range of lights, laptops, and a coffee maker. The demonstration of a lightweight power receiver suitable for drones followed in 2020. The project has proven to the satisfaction of the Navy that the PowerLight laser system can be operated safely without endangering the people who stand in the way of the beam.
Gustafson hopes that the success of PowerLight will pave the way for an even more ambitious project aimed at developing a system good enough for military field operations. The aim is to transmit at least 1,000 watts of power over a distance of one kilometer or more. If PowerLight gets Pentagon approval, the project could raise more than $ 10 million over the next few years, Gustafson said.
“This is a really big step for the company,” he said.
PowerLight, formerly known as LaserMotive, has taken many giant strides over the course of a decade. In 2009, the company won $ 900,000 in a NASA-sponsored competition to turn on cable climbing robots. Most of the work it has done since then has been for the military.
For example, one project includes the transmission of laser energy via fiber optics and not via radio.
“Our stakeholders and development partners tell us that there are important challenges in using technologies that can be clearly solved with a fiber-based solution – for example in connection with underwater electricity, electrical isolation, EMF-free energy distribution and low weighting of electricity transmission,” said PowerLight chief operating officer Bob Zak in an email to GeekWire.
Regardless of whether the system uses fiber optic or free space laser beams, the basic concept is the same: electricity turns on the laser transmitter and the receiver converts the laser light back into electricity.
According to Gustafson, the PowerLight receiver will draw power from the Department of Defense’s laser weapon systems.
“It is a very big thing for these systems to be able to do more than one thing,” he said. “You can have this high-kilowatt laser that can cause destruction, but it could also be used – and probably much more often – to deliver power over long distances.”
Keeping drones in the air at all times is the most obvious application for power beaming. One of PowerLight’s early experiments (under the LaserMotive brand) involved using a laser beam to run a quadcopter for more than 12 hours in a row.
However, this is not the only application: radiant energy can power autonomous ground vehicles or provide a temporary source of power on the battlefield or in a disaster area. It could even be used to wirelessly transmit electricity from a solar or wind turbine to a central grid.
“Probably one of the best examples of military and commercial purposes is the adoption of 5G and 5G-enabled devices,” Zak said.
“Deployment speed is just as important for a company trying to gain an edge on 5G rollout as it is in the military,” he explained. “They’re trying to move quickly in difficult wired power environments – whether it’s an urban setting, due to government permits, or because it is really difficult to get power quickly in certain locations.”
The PowerLight Optical Power Beaming Receiver will illuminate during the night tests. The light area in the middle is the optical ray as seen with a special camera. (Photo by PowerLight Technologies)
With power beaming having so many science fiction overtones, it’s only natural to consider technology for charging rovers on the Moon or Mars. According to Gustafson, PowerLight is talking to aerospace companies about the idea.
“They reached out to us for joint proposals to support NASA’s requirements for powering rovers on the moon and removing water,” he said. “They want to be able to harness solar energy on the moon … and remotely transfer that to rovers and ultimately other types of assets that could promote communication and sustainable operations on the moon.”
The very idea of empowering moon rovers may sound out of this world, but Gustafson and his team have their feet firmly on the ground when it comes to PowerLight’s finances. So far, they have been able to finance operations mainly through their military contracts.
PowerLight has raised approximately $ 6 million in private investment to date, according to Gustafson, and is preparing to close a $ 2 million convertible bond round, largely funded by existing investors. This has kept PowerLight’s workforce on an upward trend even during the coronavirus pandemic.
“With a mix of full-time and a few contract people, we have about 20 employees and we are growing,” said Gustafson.
At this time, PowerLight may be targeted towards military applications. However, Gustafson expects the breadth of the company’s business to expand dramatically in the years to come.
“It’s getting more real in terms of the demonstrations that are now leading to operationalization, more commitment to the industry and the idea of being able to connect more assets – to include sensor networks, communication networks and autonomous vehicles,” he said. “We certainly see the idea of a crawl-walk-run strategy.”