Electric Road Trip

At Oak Ridge, they push charging to the limits

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The gas station occupies a pedestal of American iconography. Convertibles filling up in the 1950s. Gas guzzlers lining up during the 1973 oil embargo. Rusting pumps along dusty roads in the desert.

The gas station is so embedded in our culture, so a part of our daily patterns, that scientists working on the next generation of electric vehicles know they must match its speed and convenience. Compressing today's hourlong charging session into 10 minutes could be the difference between widespread electric car adoption and the slow road.

During a visit to Oak Ridge National Laboratory yesterday, I met an electrical engineer who has spent two decades pushing the limits of electric motors, inverters and magnets. ORNL is part of a consortium of national labs placing a laser focus on slashing charging times and increasing the range of electric cars.

The Power Electronics and Electric Machinery Research Center here helped build the foundation for what its leader, Burak Ozpineci, thinks could transform the way electric cars fit into our lives: wireless charging.

The latest obsession is called dynamic in-motion wireless charging. It can be embedded in roads and driveways. In theory, it doesn't just match the speed and convenience of a gas station; it does away with the whole notion of stopping to fuel. And it obliterates range anxiety.

"You don't have to think about charging," Ozpineci explained. You go home and pull into the garage, there's a wireless charge. When you head off to work, you're traveling across a charging unit embedded in the highway. "You never have to plug in anything. You just drive."

Last October, ORNL demonstrated a 120-kilowatt wireless charging system with 97% efficiency. Researchers called it a "big step" in the race to put charging times on par with filling up a car with gas. To put that into perspective, BMW's commercial version of a wireless charging system has a capacity of 3.2 kW at 80% efficiency.

Now, scientists are dipping their toes into the practical effect of electrifying roads. What percentage of roads must be electrified to serve an EV-driving public?

The labs I went to were part of the National Transportation Research Center. I traveled from square room to square room with scientists who were happy to let me stick my nose in the powdery nickel-based concoction of minerals used inside a battery. I learned that the lab is trying to get the word out to battery manufacturers that they could minimize or eliminate their use of cobalt, a rare-earth mineral produced not in the United States but in Congo, where its mining is a public health crisis.

I also learned — because I asked, over and over again — nearly everything they do is meant to help bring down the overall cost and volume of batteries and powertrains.

Driving down battery costs is the focus of Department of Energy EV-related research, said Ilias Belharouak, who runs Oak Ridge's Battery Manufacturing Facility. He said DOE's goal is to bring batteries down to $80 per kilowatt-hour. Today, they're around $200 per kWh.

Still, that's a lot better than it was in 2008, when electric car batteries cost about $1,000 per kWh. That put electric cars out of the price range of most people.

"You can see there was significant effort to bring costs down," Belharouak said. But getting to $80 is a challenge, he noted. It means testing new manufacturing processes and moving away from cobalt as a core mineral ingredient.

Once we're there, he predicted, you'll see more electric cars on the road.

Electric Road Trip

E&E News reporters take a 6,000-mile road trip in an electric vehicle to explore how the switch from gas to electric transportation will change the economy, environment and daily life of America.
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