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ILP Institute Insider

October 20, 2014
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A World of Wireless Power

If you buy a 2016 Toyota Prius, you won’t need to worry about keeping your hybrid car charged — just get the option for wireless power transfer that lets you drive into your garage and have your battery automatically topped up from a pad on the floor.
Morris Kesler
WiTricity CTO
A year or two from now you’ll also be able to purchase laptops, tablets, mobile phones and other consumer electronic devices that don’t need any wires, because their power needs will be met by wireless transmission.

“Instead of having a different charging cord for every device you own, you can have one location where you put your mobile phone or your laptop, and it will stay charged automatically,” says Morris Kesler, Chief Technology Officer at WiTricity of Watertown, Massachusetts. “There’s no reason that these devices need a cord anymore.”

WiTricity, an MIT spinoff, offers highly resonant wireless power transfer technology that “is applicable in any situation where a device has a cord or a battery that needs to be charged,” Kesler says.

An Idea that Resonated
In magnetic induction, an alternating magnetic field is generated in a transmitter coil and then converted into electrical current in a receiver coil. Wireless power systems that exploit this technique have been around for decades, with cordless toothbrushes offering one example. But traditional wireless power systems based on magnetic induction come with severe operational limitations, especially in transfer distance and positioning.

In 2006, MIT physics professor Marin Soljačić and his colleagues demonstrated a highly resonant form of magnetic induction that can carry wireless power efficiently over larger distances — the breakthrough being commercialized by WiTricity.

“The use of resonance enables efficient use of energy transfer over greater distances and with greater positional freedom than you get with a traditional inductive system,” says Kesler. “For example, your cordless toothbrush only works when the toothbrush is in the holder. Resonance technology lets you move that receiver farther apart and still transfer energy efficiently, and the orientation of the device is less critical than it is in a traditional system. You also can transfer energy from one source to more than one device, the source and the devices don’t have to be the same size, and you can charge through materials like tables.”

Most importantly, “the technology allows you to charge things without even thinking about it,” he emphasizes. “You put your device on a table or a workspace, and it charges as you go.”

Like other magnetic inductive power transmissions, the WiTricity technology interacts only very weakly with the human body, Kesler adds. From a safety perspective, it satisfies the same regulatory limits as common household electronics and appliances.

As the holder of the foundational patents, WiTricity is helping to drive standardization efforts around wireless power transfer over distance using magnetic resonance, including those for automobiles run by the Society of Automotive Engineers and those for consumer electronics pursued by the Alliance for Wireless Power, whose Rezence™ specification incorporates WiTricity technology.

Powering Up Under Difficult Conditions
In addition to offering compelling increases in convenience for cars and consumer electronics, the WiTricity technology will provide dramatic enhancements in applications where power is difficult to deliver.

In one example, WiTricity licensee Thoratec is leveraging the improved wireless power transfer to develop better heart-assist pumps. Today, such pumps are typically powered by implanted wires that exit the body. Wireless power transfer offers the potential to improve quality of life for patients, giving them greater freedom of movement, and removing the wires that are uncomfortable and likely to trigger infections. Medical devices implanted several centimeters below the skin could be charged safely and with high efficiency, Kesler says.

In addition to a host of medical applications, the technology is finding many uses in industrial settings. Wireless power transfer that works over a distance offers important advantages, for instance, in powering equipment that gets wet. “You don’t necessarily want to have a charge port on a device like that,” Kesler points out. “By embedding our technology into that device, you can charge it wirelessly without having to plug it in, which basically offers a safer usage model.”

For example, the remotely operated undersea vehicles employed in offshore petroleum operations must dock very precisely to connect up for charging. “WiTricity technology would allow you to charge them without requiring that precise positioning and without having any electrical components exposed,” Kesler says.

The company also envisions a host of military applications, ranging from powering remotely operated vehicles to rationalizing the collections of batteries carried by foot combatants.

Readying for Fast-growing Markets
WiTricity’s publicly announced licensees include Intel and Mediatek for consumer electronics, and Delphi, IHI, TDK and Toyota for automotive applications. The total market for wireless power systems of all kinds will reach $8.5 billion in 2018, driven most strongly by adoption in mobile phones and tablet computers, predicts IHS Technology. In this highly competitive market, numerous companies will offer different technologies and system designs. Many products will work by traditional magnetic induction, but those using magnetic resonance technology will need a WiTricity license, Kesler says.

“The market has started to catch up with the technology now, and we are working on standardized licensing agreements to make it easier for our customers to put it into practice,” he says. The firm develops prototypes and reference designs that help licensees get started on their applications, and offers the WiCAD simulation environment, a design tool that allows companies to create specifications for their designs virtually before building expensive prototypes.

WiTricity also sells demonstration products that allow companies considering the technology to see it in action. “Additionally, at our facility, we can demonstrate the technology in ways that are difficult to explain on a piece of paper,” Kesler says. “Usually when people see the technology they say, ‘Wow, that looks like magic, how do you do that?’”

Research News

October 17, 2014

Superconducting circuits, simplified

Computer chips with superconducting circuits — circuits with zero electrical resistance — would be 50 to 100 times as energy-efficient as today’s chips, an attractive trait given the increasing power consumption of the massive data centers that power the Internet’s most popular sites.

Superconducting chips also promise greater processing power: Superconducting circuits that use so-called Josephson junctions have been clocked at 770 gigahertz, or 500 times the speed of the chip in the iPhone 6.

But Josephson-junction chips are big and hard to make; most problematic of all, they use such minute currents that the results of their computations are difficult to detect. For the most part, they’ve been relegated to a few custom-engineered signal-detection applications.

In the latest issue of the journal Nano Letters, MIT researchers present a new circuit design that could make simple superconducting devices much cheaper to manufacture. And while the circuits’ speed probably wouldn’t top that of today’s chips, they could solve the problem of reading out the results of calculations performed with Josephson junctions.

MIT Sloan
Management Review

October 9, 2014

Four Steps to Fixing Troubled IT Projects

When health care insurer WellPoint ran into trouble changing its provider payment system, it only turned things around after putting the project into “Status Red.”

The project’s big vision is to shift from a model where the company pays physicians based on volume (procedures, visits, admissions) to one where it pays based on “value” (ability to manage costs and improve patient outcomes and quality of care). That model is sometimes called the “shared savings model,” because insurers share any savings with primary care providers. WellPoint has said that shared savings could help physicians increase their earnings by 30 to 50%.

Making the shift means figuring out how to give doctors more data — and data that’s easier to act on — about patients with chronic conditions. That would help doctors provide more effective care.

But as MIT Sloan Management Review detailed in the Data and Analytics Case Study “Preparing Analytics for a Strategic Role: Behind WellPoint’s Shift to a New Provider Payment System,” the IT project to bring this level of data integration to life ran into big troubles.

In September 2012, the project missed its first deliverable. Over the next seven months “it was one Band-Aid after another,” according to Ashok Chennuru, a staff vice president of technology. In April 2013, Jill Hummel, WellPoint’s vice president of payment innovation, told her boss that the project should go into Red status. Chennuru was installed as the project’s new lead.

According to the April 2014 case study, flagging the project as troubled was not initially received well by the ranks. “It was not motivating, let’s put it that way,” said one engineer who had been logging 90-hour work weeks.

Still, sending the warning message up to the top of the organization ended up having a positive effect. Here the four things the team did once the flag was raised:
  • Focus on the upside of admitting a project is in trouble: You get more resources. VP Hummel stressed in her conversations with managers that going Red meant the project would get more help. The company brought in a consultancy and opened up new jobs for IT and business people who had worked in a new software development approach called “Agile,” or iterative development, that project leaders decided they needed to shift to.

  • Start holding daily meetings. Project teams began having daily half-hour meetings, called scrums, where IT and the business side talked about what had been achieved since the day before and what work needed to be done that day. Previously, a general status meeting was taking place only once a week, with as-needed meetings for testing and issue resolution. Testing meetings also started happen daily. If testing issues come up, separate meetings were immediately scheduled to address them.

  • Figure out what benchmarks will show positive progress. Hummel helped develop measurable criteria that needed to be reached to get the project out of Red status.

  • Celebrate small successes to boost morale. Hummel highlighted every success she could find, including when people came up with work-arounds for their reporting issues.
The case study, which was made possible by Deloitte, explains that with the new focus on developing a collaborative culture, IT and business began to work together in better and smarter ways.

For instance, an IT developer who was creating a hover-over box that displayed visit counts for a patient sent an Email to the business side questioning the requirements. He thought the design would be confusing to a nurse trying to understand the patient’s medical history. That was a great moment, according to one of the team members working on the analytics part of the project. “Rather than business discovering the issue during testing — after design and development was complete — and then fighting with IT over whether or not this was a defect, here the developer understood the user story and challenged the requirements early in the process.”

Stephanie Woerner, a research scientist at the MIT Center for Information Systems Research, notes that while culture change like what WellPoint was attempting is always difficult, the company’s response was effective for moving the process forward. “Everyone in the organization is affected and they all must buy in,” she writes in a commentary that’s posted with the case study. “WellPoint targeted ground-up cultural change by bringing in training, adding resources, and hiring people who had experience with the desired change. WellPoint executives committed their time to the project and created metrics that aligned with the desired changes. And progress was celebrated.”

The case study says that the new collaborative approach is not perfect: Documentation for how things work is often overlooked in the race to get code written and tested, and business requirements sometimes emerge spontaneously. But project leader Chennuru said that he sees a point in the near future where his team can move out of urgent mode.

The case study also says that WellPoint hopes to have the majority of the physician practices participating in its value based program using the system by 2015.

This article draws from “Preparing Analytics for a Strategic Role: Behind WellPoint’s Shift to a New Provider Payment System,” a Data and Analytics Case Study made possible by Deloitte, by Michael Fitzgerald (MIT Sloan Management Review). The study was published online April 23, 2014 at sloanreview.mit.edu.