Utah State University Researchers Aim to Cure 'Range Anxiety' in Electric Cars

The university researchers received approval to move forward with plans for a new research facility to test recharging technology and eliminate the common fear of running out of power in an all-electric car.

by Becky Wright, McClatchy News Service / July 2, 2014

It’s not easy being green, especially on the road.

All-electric cars may help the U.S. become more energy-independent and lower pollution levels, but right now they’re not practical in every situation, especially in the West where people often travel long distances. The fear of running out of power in an all-electric car is common enough to have a name — “range anxiety.”

Limited driving range is the biggest issues for people considering the purchase of an electric car, according to Zeljko Pantic, assistant professor in Utah State University's (USU) department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

“They kind of fear that they will not be able to find a place to recharge, and when they find that place for recharging their vehicle they’ll have to wait maybe half hour or an hour until the vehicle is ready to go,” Pantic said. “Those are the main drawbacks of the existing technology.”

Researchers at USU are working on the cure for range anxiety. On June 25, they received approval from the school’s Board of Trustees to move forward with plans for a new research facility that would include an oval track to test technology for recharging electric vehicles on the go. The proposed facility would be built at 650 E. Grand Ave., in Logan. Woodbury Corporation, the only company to respond to USU’s request for information, would be the builder.

“We hope to have some plans and designs by the end of summer,” said Robert Behunin, vice president for commercialization at USU, adding that costs won’t be known until the plans are more solid. “If we could have something going and started by the end of summer, or really fall, that would be optimum for us.”

USU’s Wireless Power Transfer team, with the Utah Science Technology and Research initiative’s Advanced Transportation Institute at the university, have already created a stationary wireless power charging system. The system has been tested on the school’s electric Aggie Bus. Instead of being plugged in to be charged, Behunin said, the bus is parked over a charging pad that transmits energy to a receiver in the bus without using electrical wires.

The next step is in-motion wireless charging.

“Inside the road, you’re going to have a coil embedded,” said Pantic. “Power would be transferred from the electrical grid to the coils ,then via magnetic field, delivered to a vehicle moving over the coil.”

There is opportunity to replace the grid with alternative sources, he said, that would capture the energy of the wind or sun.

In addition to embedding wireless charging in roadways, it could be placed in parking stalls and at intersections, where cars sit.

The new 4,800-square-foot research space is needed because current facilities aren’t large enough to test the technology being developed at USU, according to Pantic.

“There are a couple of very significant problems that need to be solved,” he said.

One is how the system will work if vehicles aren’t perfectly aligned as they pass over the coils in the road.

“The efficiency of the power transfer might be significantly different compared to stationary charging,” said Pantic. “The synchronization of charging moments, events, is also problem ... and we need to significantly redesign energy storage inside the vehicle.”

There are also safety and security issues to be worked out.

All of that requires testing on a big scale — and on a road.

In the beginning, only certain parts of the 1,300-foot-long track will be electrified.

“Later, we expect that we’ll probably need more electrified parts of the track,” he said, noting that it will provide and opportunity to explore ways to retrofit existing roads with the new technology.

At this point the research facility and test track are just a proposal — no construction has been started. If approved by the Utah State Board of Regents, it will be the only one of its kind and size in the U.S.

“We’re continuing to move forward in creating new ideas, new opportunities, and new intellectual property in an area of research that will help our air quality, and our environment, and I think that’s pretty important,” said Behunin.

©2014 the Standard-Examiner (Ogden, Utah)