Is Wireless Charging the Most Important Thing Announced by Apple?

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
©. Apple

Our never-ending search for convenience comes at a cost.

Apple has introduced wireless charging for its phones. Writing on Quartz, Mike Murphy thinks this is a very big deal, bigger than the phones themselves, and writes a post titled The most important thing Apple announced this week was not a phone.

Wireless chargers are already at hundreds of Starbucks locations across the US, and are common at airports. Apple said it envisions a world where many surfaces—from your bedside table to your car’s dashboard to your desk at work—could have wireless charging docks, meaning you’ll never have to worry about remembering a cable again.

Every one of these chargers is actually drawing power, all the time. It’s not much power;according to one manufacturer (not Qi, the Apple system), in standby mode they draw 0.05 watt-hours (Wh) per day, 1.2 Wh per 30-day month, and 14.4 Wh per year. That’s less in a year than one full charge of an iPhone. A charging pad manufacturer says, "Wireless charge pads continue to draw power while [they] are not in use, but the number is so small that we can just ignore it."

IKEA furniture with chargers built in

© IKEA furniture with chargers built in

But as IKEA and Apple and Starbucks start building inductive chargers into every surface, it is going to add up to something significant.

Wireless charging uses more power, generates heat, and takes longer

Then there is the fact that induction charging isn’t as efficient; instead of the electricity going straight into the phone it is converted to a magnetic field and then back into electricity in the phone, all of which has a cost in efficiency with the energy lost as heat. It takes much longer to charge, probably consuming even more energy. And soon it will be ubiquitous. Mike Murphy notes in Quartz:

Apple sold nearly 212 million iPhones last year. If it sells that many again, once its new iPhones hit the market, then it’s entirely likely that the already burgeoning wireless accessories market will expand even further.

So soon we will have little magnetic fields radiating out of every table top in town. It will all add up.

Is it safe?

Then there is the question of whether it is safe. There have been decades of studies that have concluded that the electromagnetic fields generated by cellphones and routers are safe, but some people suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS), from exposure to electromagnetic fields, or EMF. The World Health Organization, after thorough double-blind studies, concluded that “no scientific basis currently exists for a connection between EHS and exposure to EMF.”

But they acknowledge that people are suffering from it. Even the inventors of the Qi charging system that Apple is using felt it was necessary to address it.

Is wireless charging harmful?
Expert opinions are divided. On one side, many scientists confirm that the small amount of electromagnetic radiation that is emitted by Wireless Charging is harmless. Others speak of a very harmful radiation that can have a negative impact on the human body.
How much electromagnetic radiation is emitted by the Qi Wireless Charging System?
Insignificantly little. The principle of Qi has been used in electronic toothbrushes for years without any known physical effects on human health. Due to the low range of the Qi wireless charging technology, the electromagnetic radiation is severely limited.

© Starbucks powermat

But again, we are talking about building this technology into every tabletop so those fields will probably not be insignificantly little when they all add up. And this is not just ravings of the tinfoil hat gang; there are many, particularly in Scandinavia, who take this very seriously.

The price of convenience

A decade ago, everyone worried about wall warts, and all the vampire power that was being consumed by the little chargers connected to everything. Recently we started filling our homes with wifi enabled light bulbs and appliances, every one of which draws a bit of power even when they are not in use. Now we are adding wireless charging to the mix. None of it individually means much, but multiply it by the dozens of devices and the millions of people, and it is going to add up to something.

It's not going to be a big waste of energy, but it is still very definitely one. It seems that we can’t stop our never-ending search for convenience, whatever the cost.