Many public transit riders see the system as providing a solution to air quality and emissions by reducing the number of cars on the road. What if there was a better solution, one that even further cuts emissions? Could new technology change the face of transportation?
Developing Wireless Power Transfer
WAVE Technologies, Inc., a Utah State University (USU) technology spin-out, is addressing the issue of carbon emitting buses. In addition, they are solving the problems related to the heavy and expensive batteries required by current electric vehicles through charging using wireless technology. WAVE is slated to deploy its first commercial electrically powered bus in the coming weeks on the University of Utah (U of U) campus.
Developed by USU’s Wireless Power Transfer team, in cooperation with the Utah Science Technology and Research initiative’s (USTAR) Advanced Transportation Institute at USU, WAVE is attempting to change the way public transportation systems operate by wirelessly charging the battery from a charging pad located under the road surface. The project was led by former USU engineer Hunter Wu, who has now moved to WAVE as their chief scientist.
Unlike traditional electric chargers that require the vehicle and the charging device to physically touch or connect, the wireless power transfer (WPT) technology utilized by WAVE occurs magnetically, with no cords or connectors. Additionally, charging can take place through snow, ice and mud.
“Wireless Power Transfer is based on magnetic induction principles,” Wu said. “It uses high frequency magnetic fields to jump through an air gap, and transfers large amounts of electric power. It is the first of its kind and has the potential to truly revolutionize technology and transportation.”
Technology with a local fingerprint
Matt Sibul, chief planning officer for Utah Transit Authority (UTA), says they were drawn to WAVE in part because it’s a locally developed technology, and also because of a desire to be involved on the ground level of an electric bus program.
“We knew we wanted to develop an electric bus pilot program,” said Sibul. “We have a good relationship with USU, USTAR and the U of U, which lead to us forming a partnership with WAVE.”
The Aggie Bus, the project’s prototype, has been running on USU’s campus since late last year. The Aggie Bus represents the first electric bus developed and designed by a North American organization that can be charged through WPT technology.
Throughout the day, the battery is drained as the bus drives its route. When it stops to pick up passengers, the bus can be wirelessly recharged by aligning the charging device on the bottom of the bus with the charging station in the road. It can be misaligned up to six inches and still receive the charge, which occurs over an air gap between the bus and the roadway. This provides the bus with enough energy to last throughout the day.
At the U of U, the bus will charge for five minutes out of every 15 minutes of operation. This translates to charging 40 times a day, providing enough power for 12 hours of operation.
“If you can power during operations, you can reduce the size of the battery,” said Wesley Smith, chief development officer and one of WAVE’s founders. “Then you have the benefits of street cars or light rail, and can eliminate problems associated with a large battery.”
A cheaper solution
Smith says WAVE expects its WPT technology to be significantly cheaper than current solutions. He also indicated the single biggest impediment for electric vehicles is the physical limitations imposed by current battery technology. Current battery technology is heavy, expensive, takes up a lot of room, is slow to recharge and is costly to maintain.
“We are estimating that this will be considerably cheaper than diesel solutions,” said Smith. “One advantage of WPT compared to a conductive solution is that there’s no wear and tear, no physical contact and nothing moving, so the expectation of something wearing down is very low. We expect it to have a longer life and lower maintenance costs.”
Smith believes WAVE’s technology will positively impact the state by adding more jobs to the Utah economy. Since its incubation at USU, the company has seen an expansion in its workforce.
“We have tripled our capabilities, and hired people from inside and outside of the state,” Smith said. “The company has the potential to be a significant player in transportation worldwide.”
Being such a young company, Smith said they are experiencing growing pains.
“Even though it is economically viable, it requires a bit of investment and expenditure on our part as we grow,” he said. “The product is new, and we need to be leader on the development front and move forward with a product that can change the face of transportation.”
Expanding to new markets
One of WAVE’s biggest challenges in getting their technology to other markets is encouraging them to invest in the needed infrastructure.
Wave’s CEO and chief technology officer, Michael Masquelier, said he sees WAVE’s position as something similar to early cell phone technology. The earliest cell phones were bulky, expensive and had technical issues which prevented most people from using them. However, today almost everyone has one and can’t imagine their lives without them. This shift happened when the infrastructure changed to support cell phone technology and make it accessible to the general public. And that is the position WAVE is now in.
“Mass deployment of electric buses and vehicles will be enabled by the wireless charging infrastructure,” says Masquelier, “similar to how adoption of cell phone by the masses was driven by the widespread geographic deployment of mobile infrastructure that carries voice and data.”
In addition to the UTA project at the U of U, WAVE is currently working on several other projects. The first of those is for Long Beach Transit in California. The project is fully funded by Long Beach Transit and will outfit 10 electric buses with WAVE’s charging system. Another California project is for Monterey-Salinas Transit. The plan is to replace a diesel vehicle with a new zero-emissions electric trolley powered by the WAVE 50kW wireless charging system, which will simultaneously reduce emissions and noise pollution.
By the end of 2014, WAVE expects to have approximately 20 systems in operation.
“As electric vehicle adoption follows a path similar to what the now ubiquitous mobile telephone has enjoyed, WAVE expects to be one of the significant players in this market,” said Masquelier.