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The DOE Science News Source is a Newswise initiative to promote research news from the Office of Science of the DOE to the public and news media.
  • 2018-03-27 16:45:40
  • Article ID: 691835

Future Electric Cars Could Recharge Wirelessly While You Drive

Electric vehicles may one day be able to recharge while driving down the highway, drawing wireless power directly from plates installed in the road that would make it possible to drive hundreds—if not thousands—of miles without having to plug in. While the idea may sound like science fiction, CU Boulder engineers are working to bring it closer to reality.

“We’d like to enable electric vehicles to charge on the go,” said Khurram Afridi, an assistant professor in CU Boulder’s Department of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering.

Over the last two years, Afridi and his colleagues have developed a proof of concept for wireless power transfer that transfers electrical energy through electric fields at very high frequencies. The ability to send large amounts of energy across greater physical distance to in-motion platforms from low cost charging plates could one day allow the technology to expand beyond small consumer electronics like cell phones and begin powering bigger things like automobiles.

Currently, most electric vehicles can travel between 100 and 250 miles on a single charge, depending on the make and model. But charging stations are still few and far between in much of the country, requiring drivers to be strategic in their travel. That problem could go away with this technology, Afridi said.

“On a highway, you could have one lane dedicated to charging,” Afridi said, adding that a vehicle could simply travel in that lane when it needed an energy boost and could carry a smaller onboard battery as a result, reducing the overall cost of the vehicle.

The potential applications of wireless power transfer technology are as exciting as they are futuristic, but the questions Afridi is attempting to answer date back far longer than the current technological age.

An innovation long in the making

The idea of wireless power transfer has fascinated scientists for over a century. In the 1890s, the inventor Nikola Tesla popularized the idea of sending energy across distance and famously demonstrated the idea in public, lighting up a bulb from across the stage. The idea led Tesla to begin work on a wireless power transmission station in Shoreham, New York that he believed would send electricity through the air, but the project was never completed due to financial difficulties.

The advent of radio revolutionized long distance wireless communication shortly thereafter, but the high-frequency technology to transfer large amounts of electrical energy wirelessly had not been developed yet. Wireless power transfer languished for much of the 20th century. The consumer electronics boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, rekindled interest in the subject once more. Today, some small consumer devices feature wireless power transfer, which allows the object to draw energy while lying on a specially-designed pad that is plugged into an outlet.

Replicating this capability for an automobile in motion is far more difficult, requiring significantly more power to be sent across a greater physical distance from the roadway to the vehicle. A car traveling at highway speeds would not linger on any single charging pad for more than a fraction of a second, so the pads would need to be placed every few meters to provide a continuous charge.

Embracing the challenge

To solve the scale and in-motion problem, Afridi had to think differently about methodology. Charging a smartphone only requires five watts of power. A laptop might need 100 watts. But an electric vehicle in motion requires tens of kilowatts of power, two orders of magnitude higher.

Most wireless power technology research to date has focused on transferring energy through magnetic fields – the so-called inductive approach. Magnetic fields, at strength levels appropriate for substantial energy transfer, are easier to generate than equivalent electric fields. However, magnetic fields travel in a looping pattern, requiring the use of fragile and lossy ferrites to keep the fields and the energy directed, resulting in an expensive system.

Electrical fields, by contrast, naturally travel in relatively straight lines. Afridi wanted to take advantage of the more directed nature of electric fields for his innovation and substantially reduce the cost of the system.

The challenge of using electric fields for wireless power transfer – the capacitive approach – is that the large airgap between the roadway and the electric vehicle results in a very small capacitance through which the energy must be transferred.

“Everybody said that it’s not possible to transfer that much energy through such a small capacitance,” said Afridi. “But we thought: What if we increase the frequency of the electric fields?”

In his laboratory, Afridi and his students set up metal plates parallel to one another, separated by 12 centimeters. The two bottom plates represent the transmitting plates within the roadway while the two top plates represent the receiving plates inside the vehicle.

When Afridi flips a switch, energy is transmitted from the bottom plates. Instantly, the lightbulb above the top plates lights up—power transmission with no wires needed. The device has steadily improved to the point where it can transmit kilowatts of power at megahertz-scale frequencies.

“When we broke the thousand-watt barrier by sending energy across the 12-centimeter gap, we were just exhilarated,” Afridi said. “There were a lot of high fives that day.”

The commute of the future?

Afridi plans to continue developing the prototype and scale it for potential real-world applications. He has received funds from the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E division and support from a National Science Foundation CAREER award. A recent seed grant from the Colorado Energy Research Collaboratory, granted to Afridi in partnership with Colorado State University and NREL, will allow him to explore the feasibility and optimization of the in-motion system.

In the near term, Afridi envisions the technology being adapted for warehouse use. Automated warehouse robots and forklifts, for example, could move along areas enabled for wireless power transfer and never need to be plugged in, eliminating downtime and increasing productivity. The technology could also be adapted for use in next-generation transportation projects like the Hyperloop, a proposed system that could take passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes.

The advent of an electric highway is still far over the horizon and will inevitably face many hurdles, both technological and societal. But Afridi is optimistic and motivated to overcome them.

“As a scientist, you feel challenged by things that people tell you are impossible to do,” Afridi said. 

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Sodium- and Potassium-based Batteries Hold Promise for Cheap Energy Storage

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have found new evidence suggesting that batteries based on sodium and potassium hold promise as a potential alternative to lithium-based batteries.

ORNL researchers use AI to improve mammogram interpretation

In an effort to reduce errors in the analyses of diagnostic images by health professionals, a team of researchers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory has improved understanding of the cognitive processes involved in image interpretation, work that has enormous potential to improve health outcomes for the hundreds of thousands of American women affected by breast cancer each year. The ORNL-led team found that analyses of mammograms by radiologists were significantly influenced by context bias, or the radiologist's previous diagnostic experiences.

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Researchers Generate Electricity and Hydrogen from Live Bacteria

Using a family of photosynthetic bacteria that commonly live in lakes and seas, researchers at the Technion have developed a technology to generate electricity and hydrogen energy. The researchers believe their technology can serve as a promising source of clean, environment-friendly energy that will not emit pollutants during production or use (hydrogen fuel).

Carbon Nanotube Optics Poised to Provide Pathway to Optical-Based Quantum Cryptography and Quantum Computing

Researchers at Los Alamos and partners in France and Germany are exploring the enhanced potential of carbon nanotubes as single-photon emitters for quantum information processing. Their analysis of progress in the field is published in this week's edition of the journal Nature Materials.

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Scientists Use Neutrons to Take a Deeper Look at Record Boost in Thermoelectric Efficiency

Neutron facilities at Oak Ridge National Laboratory are aiding scientists in research to boost the power and efficiency of thermoelectric materials. These performance increases could enable more cost-effective and practical uses for thermoelectrics, with wider industry adoption, to improve fuel economy in vehicles, make power plants more efficient, and advance body heat-powered technologies for watches and smartphones.

The science behind pickled battery electrolytes

Argonne material scientists have discovered a reaction that helps explain the behavior of a key electrolyte additive used to boost battery performance.

Faster, Cheaper, Better: A New Way to Synthesize DNA

Researchers at the Department of Energy's Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) based at Berkeley Lab have pioneered a new way to synthesize DNA sequences through a creative use of enzymes that promises to be faster, cheaper, and more accurate. DNA synthesis is a fundamental tool in the rapidly growing field of synthetic biology, in which organisms can be engineered to do things like decompose plastic and manufacture biofuels and medicines. This discovery could dramatically accelerate the pace of scientific discovery.


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Professor Emily Liu Receives $1.8 Million DoE Award for Solar Power Systems Research

Li (Emily) Liu, associate professor of nuclear engineering and engineering physics in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has been selected by the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) to receive a $1.8 million award to study high-temperature molten-salt properties and corrosion mechanisms.

Vasilis Fthenakis Receives IEEE's William R. Cherry Award

UPTON, NY; Vasilis Fthenakis, a Senior Scientist Emeritus at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory and Founder and Director of the Center for Life Cycle Analysis at Columbia University, will receive the 2018 William R. Cherry Award from the Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

New PPPL director Steve Cowley is honored with knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II

Steven Cowley, newly named director of the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) effective July 1, has received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth "for services to science and the development of nuclear fusion."

UVA Darden Releases Policy Playbook Identifying Six Actions to Catalyze Clean-Tech Innovation

Moving the needle on climate change will require substantive and disruptive innovation across multiple industry sectors. Public and private investment focused on a few key areas could have a significant impact, according to a new policy playbook released by the Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation on 8 June.

Work Begins on New SLAC Facility for Revolutionary Accelerator Science

The Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory has started to assemble a new facility for revolutionary accelerator technologies that could make future accelerators 100 to 1,000 times smaller and boost their capabilities.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory Launches America's New Top Supercomputer for Science

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Takeuchi Receives European Inventor Award 2018 in the Non-EPO Countries Category

Prolific patent-holder won for inventing battery that increases the lifespan of implantable defibrillators fivefold, greatly reducing need for reoccurring surgery

Steve Kevan Named Next Director of Berkeley Lab's Advanced Light Source

After an international search, Stephen D. "Steve" Kevan has been named the new director of the Advanced Light Source (ALS) at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

International corrosion society elects first Sandia fellow

Sandia National Laboratories materials scientist David Enos has been elected a fellow of NACE International, the chief professional society for corrosion engineering. He is the first Sandia employee to receive the honor.

Power to the People

The University of Utah College of Engineering has received a $2 million grant to create a laboratory and develop new technology for communities with backup power sources, known as microgrids, so they can quickly and more securely operate in the event of a massive power outage due to a natural disaster or cyberattack.


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New Tech Uses Isomeric Beams to Study How and Where the Galaxy Makes One of Its Most Common Elements

A new measurement using a beam of aluminum-26 prepared in a metastable state allows researchers to better understand the creation of the elements in our galaxy.

Simulations of Magnetically Confined Plasmas Reveal a Self-Regulating Stabilizing Mechanism

A mysterious mechanism that prevents instabilities may be similar to the process that maintains the Earth's magnetic field.

Seeing All the Colors of the Plasma Wind

2-D velocity imaging helps fusion researchers understand the role of ion winds (aka flows) in the boundary of tokamak plasmas.

Renewable Solvents Derived From Lignin Lowers Waste in Biofuel Production

New class of solvents breaks down plant biomass into sugars for biofuels and bioproducts in a closed-loop biorefinery concept.

Scientists Studying Nuclear Spin Make a Surprising Discovery

The size of a nucleus appears to influence the direction of certain particles emitted from collisions with spinning protons.

Simulating Turbulent Bubbly Flows in Nuclear Reactors

With a better understanding of bubbly flows, researchers can improve the safety and operation of our nuclear reactors.

Solving a Magnesium Mystery in Rechargeable Battery Performance

Study reveals surprising, bad chemical reactivity in battery components previously considered compatible.

Changing the Surroundings Improves Catalysis

Water changes how cobalt-based molecule turns carbon dioxide into chemical feedstock.

How to Draw a Line Narrower Than a Cold Virus

Scientists use ion beams to write high-purity metal structures, enabling nanofabrication opportunities.

Powering Up With a Smart Window

Window material repeatedly switches from being see-through to blocking the heat and converting sunlight into electricity.


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