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Qualcomm invents way to wirelessly charge mobile devices with metal bodies

The new technology will allow you to wirelessly charge a smartphone or other device with a metal exterior or case, a process that hasn't been possible with current charging systems.

Qualcomm's new technology will let you wirelessly charge a device with a metal exterior. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Mobile phones that sport metal bodies or cases will soon be able to wirelessly charge themselves courtesy of a new technology created by Qualcomm.

Qualcomm subsidiary Qualcomm Technologies Inc. (QTI) announced on Tuesday that it's the first company to enable wireless charging of mobile devices with metal exteriors. Until now, mobile devices with metal exteriors haven't been compatible with existing wireless charging technologies.

What's so special about charging devices with metal bodies or cases? Wireless charging technologies that use an induction charger heat up metal objects, making an induction-based system incompatible with anything metal. Instead, companies like Qualcomm use a wireless charging technology called magnetic resonance, which is much more tolerant of metal items. Magnetic resonance creates a charge over a small three-dimensional space, which means that coins, keys and other metal items lying around in that space are unaffected by the charge.

Qualcomm's new invention takes the technology several steps further. Instead of just tolerating small metal items such as keys and coins, the company's new wireless charging system can charge larger objects with metal bodies, such as mobile phones and tablets.

To put it in technical terms, Qualcomm taps into a technology known as WiPower, which conforms to a standard called Rezence. WiPower's magnetic resonance can operate at a frequency better able to handle metal objects without affecting the charging process. But with the latest innovation, Qualcomm's WiPower can charge an entire device made of metal.

At this point, Qualcomm has invented the technology, so it's not yet available on a commercial level where consumers can take advantage of it. The technology itself requires that mobile device manufacturers add the ability to charge a device through a metal cover or exterior. The design methods for doing so are now available to companies that license the WiPower technology. So now it's up to mobile phone and tablet makers to incorporate the technology into their devices.

Qualcomm actually works with the handset maker on the design of the metal back cover and the wireless power resonator, Mark Hunsicker, senior director of product management at Qualcomm, explained.

"We do this to ensure the wireless power transfer, and this capability does not affect the other radios in the phone," Hunsicker said. "In addition to the metal back cover, a wireless power interface chip is required to be added to the system. Qualcomm has worked to ensure that this chip seamlessly interfaces to Snapdragon chipsets that support WiPower."

By using magnetic resonance, WiPower already offers several benefits. You can charge your mobile device on a charging pad or surface without having to perfectly align it. You can also charge multiple devices, each with different power requirements. Further, WiPower can charge devices that require as much as 22 watts at speeds that match or exceed those of other wireless charging technologies, according to Qualcomm.

"Building a wireless charging solution into devices with metal exteriors is a significant step for moving the entire industry forward," Steve Pazol, general manager of Wireless Charging for Qualcomm, said in a press release. "Today, more device manufacturers are choosing to utilize metal alloys in their product designs to provide greater structural support and, of course, aesthetics. QTI's engineering advancement eliminates a major obstacle facing wireless power and opens up the continued adoption of this desirable feature to a much wider range of consumer electronics and use cases."

Update, 1:08 p.m. PT: Adds video and comment from Mark Hunsicker.