A pile of old electronic equipment being thrown out by Oxford University has inspired an engineer to create a 'cable-free' device that can charge mobile phones with no wires attached.

Dr Chris Stevens, of the university's engineering department, originally developed the device not for battery charging, but for recycling.

“By the lift in our labs there is a crate full of electronic waste and I was looking aghast, as it was basically all going to be scrapped,” he said.

A typical silicon chip, of the type that powers modern computers and other gadgets, has hundreds of metal conducting wires, which would be unnecessary with a new 'metamaterial' which he has created in the lab.

He hopes that with his 'cable-free' device, electronic goods could be updated with new components easily and re-used, without the need for a new printed circuit board.

At the moment, reusing is impractical, because soldered wires connect processors to other components. Dr Stevens instead envisages Lego-like blocks of silicon stuck to a Velcro-like metamaterial board that can wirelessly transmit or conduct both data and power.

He says the chips could be simply peeled off and reused in a lower-end computer, then again in a smart TV and at the end of their lifetime, in a washing machine.

Metamaterials are created artificially with special patterns to manipulate light or radio waves, giving rise to ideas from the realm of science fiction, such as a 'cloak of invisibility' created by US scientists last year, in research supported by the Pentagon. Dr Stevens works with microwaves, which is easier than light, he says.

"The technology is similar to that used 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.”

His suggested applications also seem to come from the world of sci-fi, such as smart clothing which would allow the wearer to link up headphones, mobiles, cameras and music players.

His team has already incorporated the cable-free technology into carpet tiles to power a lamp. He says the living room of the future could have the stereo, TV, DVD and satellite box powered and linked through the carpet and wallpaper.

Meanwhile, an electric car in the driveway could be doing the same from a charging mat. The syncing and recharging of mobile devices could take place effortlessly, even in public spaces such as cafes or cinemas.

Because they are wire-free, devices can be completely encapsulated, making them waterproof and robust. This makes metamaterials attractive for service in the aerospace, military, automotive and medical sectors.

Dr Stevens said: ”We can have smart medical sensors in the form of a sticking plaster that can act as a diagnostic tool as well as powering something like an implanted insulin pump.”

He hopes the ‘metamaterials’ could also allow transfer of data. A similar technique is already used in new contactless smartcards issued by banks and bus companies.

“I have done it with a smartcard, which proves the principle. You could apply it to a computer monitor — wave a memory stick at the screen and have files sucked in.”

Talking about the data and power transfer capacity of the technology, Dr Stevens said: “It is a movable feast — the required bandwidth determines the design and the design limits the bandwidth.

“Right now we can achieve 3.5 Gigabits per second data transfer rate and hundreds of watts of power but the circuits have the capacity for increased performance.”

Dr Stevens' long-term goal is to fundamentally change the way the electronics industry views recycling of components.

“Right now we have a new generation of devices coming out every six to 12 months. These devices are soldered or wired together so are difficult to recycle. 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. 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.”

At the moment, his device lights up LEDs as they are waved over the material, with copper coils embedded into a conductive layer of material. To make something more sophisticated, he needs funding from industry, rather than university grants.

Oxford University’s research commercialisation company, Isis Innovation, is working with him to bring the technology to market, probably by licensing the patent to an electronics company.