Come next year, students, faculty and staff at the University of Utah may be riding on what officials are touting as the first electric-powered, fully wireless rechargeable transit bus.

Researchers at Utah State University’s Energy Dynamics Laboratory (EDL) say they have perfected “wireless power transfer technology” featuring charging pads embedded in concrete. Through magnetic fields, enough power is transferred to a vehicle so it can operate over a predetermined course. In this case, it’ll be a two-mile campus bus route.

Hunter Wu, principal investigator and research scientist with the EDL, hopes the project is another move toward a viable form of non-fossil fuel power for vehicles. He explained that over the past year, he and his team have developed a 5 kilowatt system that can transfer power over 10 inches of air gap — any sort of space, including through concrete — at an efficiency rate of 90 percent.

In consumer terms, think of a rechargeable pad that a mobile device sits on to wirelessly recharge. But instead of the device being on the pad itself, it could sit on a shelf 10 inches above the pad and still receive the power. That idea is being applied to vehicles.

For the University of Utah bus demonstration, 50 kilowatts of power and multiple charging pads are needed, as is the ability to transmit the power over a foot of space to reach a bus chassis. So the system is being tweaked to improve the transfer ceiling and include more powerful pads capable of recharging the bus at a rate of approximately five minutes for every 10 minutes of operation.

Wu said while his team’s research has demonstrated that the technology can last for more than 20 years, the goal is to extend it to 50 years, so once the pads are embedded, you don’t have to worry about them.

“It’s the challenge of making things reliable,” Wu said. “Although our lab prototype is reliable every time we turn it on, it’s not really designed as a consumer product. It doesn’t have the nuts and bolts inside to make it long-life.”

Commercial Application

To bring the wireless power transfer technology to the masses, a new startup, WAVE Technologies Inc., spun-off from EDL earlier this year. The company has an exclusive license to commercialize the product, and deploying it at the University of Utah is the first step in that plan.

So why is a technology developed at Utah State being demonstrated at the University of Utah, a rival school? Eric Warren, director of public relations for the Utah State University Research Foundation, explained that the decision was mostly due to maximizing exposure.

Utah State is located in Logan; the University of Utah is in Salt Lake City. Choosing a location for the bus route came down to where the bus would be used heavily and receive the most attention.

James May, vice president of business development and program management for WAVE Technologies, said the University of Utah had a new transit route in mind that would take the bus through the center of campus, which he believed would serve as an effective showcase for the technology.

Previously, University of Utah officials didn’t want a bus route in the area, primarily due to an objection over diesel buses traveling through the heart of campus. There’s much less opposition from deans and students over emissions from a rechargeable bus.

The goal is to market the technology, which includes retrofitted buses and the pads, to transit authorities nationwide.

“Transit agencies are really paying attention to this stuff and … are really interested in technology solutions that enable them to operate no emissions or low emissions vehicles,” May explained. “The problem is they are extremely expensive to do right now. What we are doing is allowing transit agencies to run electric vehicles without that extremely high electric vehicle price tag.”

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.