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Purdue engineers are designing the nation’s first road where electric vehicles can be charged on the go

May 11—WEST LAFAYETTE — In 2019, a group of Purdue faculty and students met with university President Mung Chiang in his office to share their ideas for developing technology that would allow electric vehicles to charge while driving.

“I thought they were writing science fiction,” Chiang said.

Researchers, government officials and business leaders recently gathered at the Indiana Department of Transportation’s subdistrict office to mark a milestone in the group’s work to make science fiction reality.

A quarter-mile stretch of US 231 that passes in front of the INDOT facility will be ready for experiments next year to test a patent-pending system that provides power to a heavy-duty electric truck traveling at highway speeds.

“We are excited about the opportunity before us,” said INDOT Commissioner Mike Smith. “This is a moment of such transformative potential in our industry. At one point we said it was impossible to send people to the moon, and Purdue keeps doing it, right?”

The research leading to this project is one of the first of its kind and is based on the development of dynamic wireless energy transfer technology. The pavement will use specially designed wireless charging coils embedded beneath the surface to send power to an electric vehicle using magnetic fields.

The concept, officials say, is similar to pads that generate magnetic fields to charge cellphones, but on a much larger scale.

“Your iPhone is charging, what, five volts?” said John Haddock, professor of civil engineering at Purdue. “This system will run about 230 kilowatts, so that’s the kind of difference in power you’re talking about. However, scaling it up isn’t that easy. That’s why we have the electrical engineers.”

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The uneven rollout of a federal program designed to entice states to build half a million electric vehicle charging stations by 2030 has not done much to deter demand for electric vehicles, which rose 7.6 last year, according to Cox Automotive % of the total national market. estimates.

Although demand is declining slightly, some industry analysts predict that electric vehicles could account for more than 30% of the total market by the end of the decade. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that there will be as many as 33 million electric vehicles on the road by 2030, and up to 28 million charging points will be needed to support them.

However, three years after Congress passed legislation providing nearly $7.5 billion to fund the production and installation of chargers across the country, only half of states have begun accepting bids for the work , and none have reached the construction stage.

The lack of viable charging stations and often prohibitive costs — the cheapest new EV currently available still costs about $30,000, according to Car & Driver magazine — are two major barriers to faster adoption, according to Purdue researchers.

“These are linked issues, and the cost issue is usually (related to) the battery,” said Steve Pekarek, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue. “As you increase battery size, you have higher costs, and on the other hand, if you want to eliminate range concerns, you need a larger battery.”

A research team at Purdue, led by Pekarek and Haddock, began studying dynamic wireless power transfer technology in 2018. They developed a system that used polyphase topology: multiple electrical current flows that work together to produce power. At the time, most existing systems used a single power stream.

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From there, charging vehicles on the go – essentially “letting the roadway do the work,” in Pekarek’s words – became a logical, if difficult to imagine, solution.

“I think that’s kind of what people are saying: Can we really charge commercial vehicles on the go on our network?” said Smith.


Environmental advocates say accelerating the pace of electric vehicle adoption will bring clear benefits in mitigating climate change. A recent study by Geotab, a global telematics company that provides vehicle tracking data in 160 countries, found that replacing a gasoline-powered car with an electric car would save approximately 40 tons of CO2 emissions over the vehicle’s life cycle.

The Purdue researchers acknowledge that going from quarter-mile test drives to converting most of the nation’s highways to wireless charging would be difficult. EV manufacturers would need to equip new vehicles with transmitters – and retrofit existing ones – to connect the technology to battery management systems.

Utilities would have to build networks to transport power to the roads. Agencies at all levels of government should support the concept.

“It’s a big infrastructure project, so that always brings concerns because you have a lot of different players in that game,” Pekarek said. “Can you integrate all the players in a time that makes it feasible?”

Another member of the Purdue research team, Nadia Gkritza, professor of civil, agricultural and biological engineering, said it is important to note that the project is not intended as a replacement for a nationwide charging network.

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“We see the potential for dynamic wireless energy hardening technology to complement a growing network of EV charging stations that we will see here in the U.S. very soon,” she said.

“We believe it would be useful in areas where charging stations are scarce in underserved communities, and would even support transit routes where initial charging at depots and terminal stations may not be enough and some charging between routes might be necessary.”

Although engineers are so far in uncharted territory with the evolving technology, in many ways the project itself will follow existing templates for traditional roadwork.

“I think it’s pretty standardized, to be honest,” said Sarah Hale, project manager for INDOT. “As long as it works, I think it can probably be duplicated on any road.”

Pekarek and his team hope to begin testing the pavement early next year, but even before then there is potential for starting the next phase of the project: a stretch of highway of at least five miles, possibly between Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio.

Once installed, electrified highways will have the potential to transform the transportation sector, Haddock said.

“Combined with renewable energy, these ubiquitous sustainable charging systems will change the way we move people and freight over long distances,” he said. “I think we all want to leave a better world to our grandchildren, and hopefully we’re doing some of that here.”

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