Bonfire of the cables | University of Oxford
OSB archive
OSB archive

Bonfire of the cables

Pete Wilton

Is it time to consign those annoying cables and chargers to the bonfire of technological vanities and embrace a cable-free existence?

As Oxford University Innovation report that's the promise of new technology being developed by Chris Stevens at Oxford University's Department of Engineering Science that enables devices such as mobile phones and cables to charge and transmit data without cables and could one day eliminate power and data cables altogether.

'You could have a truly active, cable-free, battery-less desktop that can power and link your laptop or PC, monitor, keyboard, mouse, phone and camera. For example, by incorporating the technology behind the screen of a computer monitor, digital files, photos and music could be transferred effortlessly to and from a USB stick simply by tapping the flash drive against an on-screen icon,' Chris explains.

'This work comes from research into metamaterials, that is, materials that act as magneto-inductive wave guides and magneto-inductive power surfaces. You can find simple inductive technology in the charging unit of an electric toothbrush but in this case we can transfer data as well, and over a distance.

'The real beauty is that since the technology is in a patterned conductive layer, we can start adding that layer to any surface or indeed into a fabric.'

Weaving power and data capabilities into fabric opens up all kinds of intriguing possibilities such as smart textiles: the Oxford researchers have already built cable-free technology into a carpet to power a lamp and can achieve 3.5 Gigabits per second data transfer rate and hundreds of watts of power but believe there's still plenty of scope to improve the performance of their circuits. These advances suggest that the ability to synch and charge mobile devices could, literally, be woven into the fabric of public spaces.

Another advantage is that without the ports and holes needed to plug in cables it's much easier to make devices robust and waterproof: something that will make metamaterials technology ideal for applications in industries from aerospace to medicine.

But, even more importantly, according to Chris a cable-free existence could help us to recycle our electronic devices as it's the fact that they are wired and soldered together that makes them so hard to reuse:

'If you do away with wires and connect your components by sticking them onto a sealed circuit board, taking them apart becomes easy. No desoldering, no heat treatments, no toxic chemicals, no damage to the components,' he says.

'High spec computers can be sent back to the manufacturer when the next model comes out and the processors can be reused for lower spec home computers. Eventually those same processors can end up in TVs and washing machines – dramatically increasing the lifecycle of electronics.'

Think of it like electronic reincarnation: if your laptop is good to you in this life its reusable components mean it can come back as the home cinema that lights up your living room in the next.