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Utah State University Breaks Ground on Electric Vehicle Test Facility

By: Kevin Opsahl — September23, 2014 -- Herald Journal

Workers began construction Tuesday on a state-of-the-art facility that will include an electrified track, a quarter-mile long oval, that will demonstrate the effectiveness of wireless power charging.

Utah State University hopes to build on its past research with stationary wirelessly-charged electric vehicles and develop technology for in-motion wireless charged vehicles with a 4,800-square-foot research building and electrified quarter-mile track. Officials broke ground on the Electric Vehicle and Roadway (EVR) Research Facility at USU’s Innovation Campus in North Logan on Tuesday — branded as the first of its kind in the U.S. Similar research facilities are associated with Volvo in Sweden and USU collaborator KAIST (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology) in Daejeon, Korea.

The USU facility is expected to be completed early spring 2015. Slated to lead the effort once the facility is complete is Regan Zane, USTAR endowed professor of electrical and computer engineering. Zane spoke with The Herald Journal extensively before the groundbreaking Tuesday. “What we are able to do with this facility that we simply could not do before is full-scale vehicle system integration of the charging systems and, more specifically, the ability to develop, evaluate and test in-motion concepts for wireless power charging,” Zane said.

Three years ago, USU first announced its wireless electric vehicle technology efforts, starting with stationary wireless charging — where an electric bus with charging pads bolted under it could power up once it parked on another charging pad. Then, in 2012, USU rolled out the technology, literally, and drove it around the USU campus. Now that technology is being used on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City. In a prepared statement, Rob Behunin, vice president for advancement and commercialization at USU, said the idea of moving from stationary charging to in-motion charging has “always been part of the research strategy,” but developing that technology has been a challenge.

The new Electric Vehicle and Roadway (EVR) Research Facility will help researchers meet their goal. It will have a 750 kw power capacity, complete with AC and DC power distribution to the roadway and throughout the facility. Zane told the paper that the short-term goal is to have a demonstration of in-motion wireless power transfer — “proof of concept” — with a passenger vehicle and a bus running around that track continuously “with no additional requirements for charging or refueling.” That work could take two to three years to develop. “Say for a full week we have a vehicle that simply never stops out there,” he said.

In the long term, the USTAR (Utah Science Technology and Research initiative) professor’s goal is to work with industry partners and agencies like the U.S. Departments of Transportation and Energy to look for ways to apply the wireless-power transfer technology in local community environments. These could be airports, national parks or military bases, Zane said. That research would likely come to fruition in 10 to 15 years.

Zane acknowledged that the idea of electric vehicles — still fairly obscure among U.S. consumers — charging with little help for miles and miles is something the general public has not yet come to terms with. “We keep asking the same thing — how can this really impact the entire nation?” he said. “There can be incremental roll-outs. We don’t see this happening overnight, but we do look at the numbers when we did some case studies and socio-economic modeling.” This technology, adopted at a U.S. market penetration rate of only 20 percent by 2035, could result in $180 billion in annual cost savings, a 20 percent reduction in air pollution and a 10 percent reduction in CO2 emissions in the U.S., Zane said.

“We could literally roll this out across the interstate system and many of the major arteries in cities, in downtown Logan, these kinds of areas ... and the pay-off period would be in the order of three to four years even if only 20 percent of the vehicles were converted to this kind of charging. This could have a significant impact on the nation.” Even having 20 percent of the U.S. auto market using these kinds of electric vehicles “would be a revolutionary change” in transportation, the USTAR professor said. “The argument on what the acceptance rate would be is a soft one — we think 20 percent is fairly conservative — but until we cross that barrier, we just don’t see public acceptance with this technology,” Zane said.

When it comes to wireless power transfer of electric vehicles for mass-transit, other countries seem to be leading the way. Zane admits the concept is becoming a “hot topic” right now in research. KAIST has switched on a road that can recharge electric vehicles as they drive over it. The length of power strips installed under the road is 5 percent to 15 percent of the entire road, requiring only a few sections of the road be rebuilt with the embedded cables. The Korean researchers say they can transfer 136 horsepower electricity at up to an 85 percent maximum power transmission efficiency rate. “More companies are popping up ... many are U.S. divisions of foreign companies,” Zane said. “We think there’s unique approaches to what we have demonstrated technology-wise that has allowed us to get higher efficiency than what others have demonstrated.

Asked if other countries are “winning” when it comes to developing wireless power transfer technology, the USTAR professor said it’s a mixed bag. “There are two sides of the coin — we do have a leg up on our approach for high-power density, high efficiency, because we’re not quite as burdened by the approaches they (other countries) have taken,” he explained. “On the other side, in terms of public demonstration and scale, we’re behind the ball.”