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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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How a Molecular Signal Helps Plant Cells Decide When to Make Oil

Scientists identify new details of how a sugar-signaling molecule helps regulate oil production in plant cells. The work could point to new ways to engineer plants to produce substantial amounts of oil for use as biofuels or in the production of other oil-based products.

Neutrons Produce First Direct 3D Maps of Water During Cell Membrane Fusion

New 3D maps of water distribution during cellular membrane fusion could lead to new treatments for diseases associated with cell fusion. Using neutron diffraction at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, scientists made the first direct observations of water in lipid bilayers modeling cell membrane fusion.

Chemists Demonstrate Sustainable Approach to Carbon Dioxide Capture From Air

Chemists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have demonstrated a practical, energy-efficient method of capturing carbon dioxide directly from air. If deployed at large scale and coupled to geologic storage, the technique may bolster the portfolio of responses to global climate change.

Nucleation a boon to sustainable nanomanufacturing

Young-Shin Jun, professor of energy, environmental & chemical engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, and Quingun Li, a former doctoral student in her lab, are the first to measure the activation energy and kinetic factors of calcium carbonate's nucleation, both key to predicting and controlling the process.

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After 150 years, a Breakthrough in Understanding the Conversion of CO2 to Electrofuels

Using surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy, Columbia Engineers are first to observe how CO2 is activated at the electrode-electrolyte interface; their finding shifts the catalyst design from trial-and-error paradigm to a rational approach and could lead to alternative, cheaper, and safer renewable energy storage.

Water Plays Unexpected Role in Forming Minerals

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X-Rays Uncover a Hidden Property That Leads to Failure in a Lithium-Ion Battery Material

X-ray experiments at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have revealed that the pathways lithium ions take through a common battery material are more complex than previously thought.


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Berkeley Lab to Build an Advanced Quantum Computing Testbed

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) will receive $30 million over five years from the U.S. Department of Energy to build and operate an Advanced Quantum Testbed (AQT) allowing researchers to explore superconducting quantum processors to advance scientific research

Cheng wins Midwest Energy News' 40 Under 40 Award

Lei Cheng, an assistant chemist in the Materials Science division at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, has received a Midwest Energy News 40 Under 40 Award.

JCESR renewed for another five years

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) today announced its decision to renew the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), a DOE Energy Innovation Hub led by Argonne National Laboratory and focused on advancing battery science and technology.

Binghamton designated as NextFlex New York Node for flexible hybrid electronics initiative

NextFlex has designated Binghamton University to be the New York "Node" for its flexible hybrid electronics (FHE) initiative. As the NextFlex New York Node, Binghamton will design, develop and manufacture tools; process materials and products for flexible hybrid electronics; and attract, train and employ an advanced manufacturing workforce, building on the region's existing electronics manufacturing base.

First Particle Tracks Seen in Prototype for International Neutrino Experiment

The largest liquid-argon neutrino detector in the world has just recorded its first particle tracks, signaling the start of a new chapter in the story of the international Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE). DUNE's scientific mission is dedicated to unlocking the mysteries of neutrinos, the most abundant (and most mysterious) matter particles in the universe.

Tais Gorkhover Wins LCLS Young Investigator Award for Pioneering Novel X-ray Imaging Methods

Tais Gorkhover, a principal investigator with the Stanford PULSE Institute, will receive the 2018 LCLS Young Investigator Award, granted to early-career scientists in recognition of exceptional research using the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) X-ray free-electron laser at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

ORNL, United Kingdom Lab Partner on Nuclear Energy Research

The United Kingdom's National Nuclear Laboratory and the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory have agreed to cooperate on a wide range of nuclear energy research and development efforts that leverage both organizations' unique expertise and capabilities.

Nat Fisch receives Fusion Power Associates' Distinguished Career Award

Feature describes lifetime career award for PPPL physicist and professor Nat Fisch.

Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator Expands Focus to Include the Food-Water-Energy Interconnection

The Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator (IN2), a technology incubator and platform funded by the Wells Fargo Foundation and administered by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), is expanding its program to advance technologies that address the interconnection of food, water and energy.

Graham George receives Lytle Award for contributions to X-ray absorption spectroscopy

Graham Neil George, professor and Canada Research Chair in X-ray Absorption Spectroscopy (XAS) at the University of Saskatchewan, has been chosen to receive the 2018 Farrel W. Lytle Award for his outstanding contributions to synchrotron science at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.


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Breaking the Symmetry Between Fundamental Forces

Scientists improve our understanding of the relationship between fundamental forces by re-creating the earliest moments of the universe.

Water Plays Unexpected Role in Forming Minerals

Water molecules line up tiny particles to attach and form minerals; understanding how this happens impacts energy extraction and storage along with waste disposal.

Heavy Particles Get Caught Up in the Flow

First direct measurement show how heavy particles containing a charm quark get caught up in the flow of early universe particle soup.

Seeing Between the Atoms

New detector enables electron microscope imaging at record-breaking resolution.

Scaling Up Single-Crystal Graphene

New method can make films of atomically thin carbon that are over a foot long.

Discovered: Optimal Magnetic Fields Suppress Instabilities in Tokamak Plasmas

U.S. and Korean scientists show how to find and use beneficial 3-D field perturbations to stabilize dangerous edge-localized modes in plasma.

New Electron Glasses Sharpen Our View of Atomic-Scale Features

A new approach to atom probe tomography promises more precise and accurate measurements vital to semiconductors used in computers, lasers, detectors, and more.

Getting an Up-Close, 3-D View of Gold Nanostars

Scientists can now measure 3-D structures of tiny particles with properties that hold promise for advanced sensors and diagnostics.

Small, Short-Lived Drops of Early Universe Matter

Particle flow patterns suggest even small-scale collisions create drops of early universe quark-gluon plasma.

Tuning Terahertz Beams with Nanoparticles

Scientists uncover a way to control terahertz radiation using tiny engineered particles in a magnetic field, potentially opening the doors for better medical and environmental sensors.


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