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However, the near-field radiation, which stays close to the base station, contains quite a bit of energy. “If you don’t do anything with it, it just sits there,” says Pendry. “It doesn’t leak away.” This bound-up energy, which extends for a couple of meters, is extracted when a resonant receiver on a gadget comes within range.

At this point, the work is still theoretical, but the researchers have filed patents and are working to build a prototype system that might be ready within a year. Even without a prototype, though, the physics behind the concept is sound, says Freeman Dyson, professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, NJ. “It’s a nice idea and I have no reason to believe that it won’t work.”

Pendry suspects that people might be squeamish about the idea of wireless energy radiating throughout the air. “Whenever there’s powerful energy sources, people worry about safety,” he says. Depending on the application, he says, either the electric or the magnetic portion of the near-field radiation could be handy. Using the electric field would pose a health risk, and would be better employed in applications in which people aren’t nearby, he says. Conversely, using the magnetic field would be much safer and could be implemented just as easily. “I can’t think of any reason to worry [about health concerns],” he says, “but people will.”

Soljačić also suspects that the wireless power systems would be safe, based on his calculations and on the known health effects of low-frequency radio waves.

Ideally, says Soljačić, the system would be about 50 percent as efficient as plugging into an outlet, which would mean that charging a device might take longer. But the vision for this sort of wireless-energy setup, he says, is to place power hubs on the ceiling of each room in the house so that a phone or laptop can be constantly charging from any location in a home.

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