Semiconductor chips combined with actuators will make transformational devices. Actuators will enable machines to simplify our world by converting digital information and systems into some form of force, such as light or magnetic waves, or even physical pressure that can push objects. The actuator, like the sensor before it, is part of technology’s relentless quest to make machines do more and more things with greater and greater efficiency, as epitomized by the microprocessor, the most efficient information device ever made.
“You can basically look at anything that’s bulky and make it smaller and cheaper,” says Saffo. “The future is about how we do more and more work with less physical stuff.”
As a result, whole industries will be reshaped. The market for fossil fuels, for example, will suffer a new setback, as power for your electric vehicle can be delivered from a simple charging plate that works in much the same way your Apple Watch gets juiced up in its cradle. The life-sciences market will have to adjust to a world where tests can be performed and therapies delivered from a capsule you swallow to detect cancer. And robots that use actuators to move parts with great precision—and can be recharged wirelessly—will take on more manufacturing tasks.
An NXP-powered portable microwave oven, developed with Wayv; inside the Check-Cap colonoscopy pill, showing an X-ray source and Xray detectors
High Definition Cooking
You can’t cook an egg in a microwave. The magnetron, the device that emits the microwaves, blasts the egg with such force that it bursts. NXP Semiconductors’ (NXPI) new appliance, which looks like a conventional microwave oven, has been retrofitted with a power amplifier used cellular base stations to send RF signals to your phone. The system can vary the intensity of the radiation so it can control the power and distribute the energy for the food in different temperature zones [simultaneously], applying different heat for vegetables, meat, bread, eggs or other food.
Unlike the NXP chip, some actuators will need a breakthrough in semiconductor material. One of the most promising is made of a compound of gallium and nitride, referred to as GaN. It’s far more efficient than silicon at converting the movement of electrons into energy radiating outward.
GaN has acquired more and more fans. A start-up called Soraa, based in Fremont, Calif., has used the technology to develop new kinds of LED light bulbs that emit light with a much broader spectrum. Under their glare, colors appear much richer than with typical LED lights.
Alex Lidow isco-founder and CEO of Efficient Power Conversion, or EPC. EPC is helping to develop a pill by Check-Cap (CHEK), based in Mount Carmel, Israel, to detect colorectal cancer, the second leading cause of U.S. cancer-related deaths. Americans above age 50 are advised to be screened for colorectal cancer, but 40% don’t get the test. “It’s highly effective, it saves lives,” says Check-Cap CEO Bill Densel. “But it’s uncomfortable and embarrassing, so people avoid it.”
The EPC GaN chip is placed in the Check-Cap pill that the patient swallows, with no fasting required. Once inside the body, the GaN chip detects photons bouncing off the colon wall as the tissue is exposed to X-rays. Those photons can be used to produce a “contour map” of the colon in 360 degrees. The photon data is sent to a wireless receiver the patient wears.
After two to three days, on average, the pill leaves the body (the way most stuff does), and the patient takes the wireless receiver to the doctor for analysis. (The capsule doesn’t need to be recovered.) “Polyps protrude inward into the colon, and those irregularities can be displayed when we look at that map,” explains Densel of the polyp and tumor hunting. The Check-Cap test is expected to cost around $600, compared with $1,200 or more for a colonoscopy, not including the anesthesiologist’s fee.
Wirelessly powered artificial heart
EPC is working with another firm, whose name Lidow can’t disclose, that is developing an artificial heart powered wirelessly, eliminating the need for wires extruding from the organ into the patient’s body.
Electronic pain blocking
Israeli start-up BlueWind Medical, a subsidiary of Rainbow Medical. BlueWind makes a “neurostimulation” device that wraps around nerve endings and “tunes out” pain by generating a minute electric field at the synapse. It can be activated by patients for up to eight hours a day to relieve pain via a wireless controller outside the body, and is meant to be an alternative to taking opioids.
Wireless power charging is coming but will take time to penetrate different markets
The first products using Energous’ wireless charging technology, which are scheduled to ship in the first quarter of next year, are contact-based chargers; contactless versions, with the ability to span a room, will follow, he says, sometime late next year.