Physics Dept.’s Soljacic Receives MacArthur for Wireless Electricity

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Marin Soljacic ’96, assistant professor in the Department of Physics, is one of two MIT faculty members to receive a 2008 MacArthur Fellowship, or “genius grant.” Soljaic discovered a method to wirelessly transmit 60 watts of power over 2 meters using strongly coupled magnetic resonance. His work holds important implications for understanding optical physics and the development of devices such as wireless transmitters.
Allison M. Alwan—The Tech

It started with a vision of self-charging cell phones, Marin Soljacic explained.

Soljacic’s hope for a society that would never have to worry about forgetting to charge electronic devices led him to the development of wireless electricity, known as WiTricity, and the honor of becoming a 2008 MacArthur Fellow. The fellowship, commonly known as a “genius grant,” will provide him with $500,000 over five years for research with no strings attached.

Soljacic was in the car on his way to pick up his son from school when he received the phone call from David Socolow, MacArthur Foundation Fellows Program Director, informing him of his award. “Can you pull over?” Soljacic recalls Socolow saying. “I don’t want anything happen to you.”

After hearing the news, Soljacic was in shock. As is usually the case with MacArthur Fellows, he had not known that he was under consideration.

Soljacic first became interested in wireless energy after being woken up one too many times by the low-battery alarm on his old Nokia cell phone. The hassle of crawling out of bed to plug in his phone made him think about alternatives to plug-in power.

“Society is very dependent on batteries, considering that 3 billion a year are used. … What we need is automatic charging for all electronic devices,” Soljacic said. He started to investigate the transmission of power through magnetic resonance.

While WiTricity will autonomously recharge cell phones, laptops, and other devices, it has applications beyond consumer electronics, possibly proving useful in medical devices.

“In addition to electronic convenience, wireless electricity would solve a substantial environmental problem as it could replace the need for disposable batteries,” Soljacic said.

Because the MacArthur Foundation desires to encourage innovation, they give complete monetary freedom to the fellowship winners. “I can do anything I see best. I can use it for any ideas that perhaps are out there and not in the mainstream, because it’s harder for those projects to receive funding,” Soljacic said.

Soljacic said he hopes to apply his money to some high risk ventures that are already in the works.

After receiving bachelor’s degrees in physics and electrical engineering from MIT in 1996 and a physics PhD from Princeton University in 2000, Soljacic delved into researching nonlinear optics and photonics. “I’m a big believer in nanotechnology and how it deals with light with the hope of making ultra-fast optical devices,” he said. Deeply fascinated by the ability to transmit information through light, he sees all data eventually being stored in the optical domain and signal processing being performed through optical logic.

The 2008 genius grant winners range across all fields — from a neurobiologist to an urban farmer — with only a knack for exceptional creativity in common. MacArthur gave out 25 genius grants this year, with one other to an MIT scientist, Professor John A. Ochsendorf.