36– Electrified roadways, with Dr. Regan Zane

September 22, 2020 Utah State University Office of Research Episode 36
36– Electrified roadways, with Dr. Regan Zane
36– Electrified roadways, with Dr. Regan Zane
Sep 22, 2020 Episode 36
Utah State University Office of Research

The same principals that allow you to wirelessly charge devices, can be used to juice up an electric car on the highway. having trouble wrapping your mind around how that would work or why people are making it happen? 

In this episode of Instead, Wyatt sits down with USU researcher and Director of ASPIRE program, Dr. Regan Zane. Dr. Zane ushers us into the future of electric vehicles, and paints us a picture of what roadways could look like if you never had to visit a gas station.

Show Notes Transcript

The same principals that allow you to wirelessly charge devices, can be used to juice up an electric car on the highway. having trouble wrapping your mind around how that would work or why people are making it happen? 

In this episode of Instead, Wyatt sits down with USU researcher and Director of ASPIRE program, Dr. Regan Zane. Dr. Zane ushers us into the future of electric vehicles, and paints us a picture of what roadways could look like if you never had to visit a gas station.

Regan Zane: [00:00:02] So you've played Mario Kart, I assume?


Wyatt: [00:00:04] Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,


Regan Zane: [00:00:06] Kind of like the Mario Kart come over a little blue section and it gives you a shot of energy. Won't be quite like that, but we charge the vehicle while it's in motion.


Wyatt: [00:00:16] That's Dr. Regan Zane. And he's working to give us roads that can wirelessly charge electric cars, which is important because. 


Regan Zane: [00:00:25] And by having you charge as you're driving now, you require less battery on your vehicle.You're not requiring this type of charge. And in that way, we can incorporate more renewable sources into the grid.


Wyatt: [00:00:36] Dr. Zane is the director of the engineering research group Aspire.


Regan Zane: [00:00:41] Aspire is an acronym which stands for Advancing Sustainability through powered infrastructure for roadway electrification.


Wyatt: [00:00:49] In this episode, Dr. Zane explains how wireless charging works, when we might start seeing it and what the rollout might look like. You will learn how electrified roadways will benefit air quality in big cities and renewable power production in rural communities. Dr. Zane is advancing this research at Utah State University. My name is Wyatt and you could be on your Nintendo steering Princess Peach through a haunted house, but you are listening to this instead.Please make sure you subscribe to instead in your podcast app and go follow at instead podcast on Instagram.Electrified transportation infrastructure isn't new.Subway trains in New York are powered by an electrified third rail, Salt Lake trolley use overhead cables. We are going wireless for our roadways, because it doesn't seem like a good idea to have an exposed current running through the street. And it seems just as foolish to strap a 12 foot receiver pole to the top of a tiny electric car.


Wyatt: [00:01:56] I kind of get how FM radio signals and Wi-Fi routers work, a wireless charging still kind of things like magic to me. So that's where Dr. Zane and I get started. How does magnetic charging, like, transmit energy?


Regan Zane: [00:02:14] We're familiar perhaps with the radiation. The sun radiates energy wirelessly. You could say see the sun in the visual spectrum. We can also feel it from a lot of the infrared and and the thermal heat that comes from the sun in a similar way. We're also aware of electromagnetic waves and we connect from our cell phone to a cell based power that's through an electromagnetic field for the EV charger. We could actually use similar principles, but in that case, radiating energy all over would be both lossy and dangerous, that if these high power them. So instead, what we do is we generate a local or near field, as we call it, a magnetic field, and that is well contained. It doesn't radiate out quite like your cell phone or like the same example that I gave. It's actually contained within the space, right between the vehicle in the roadway. It's also something that we carefully control. So the materials that we incorporate into that system and now by generating that controlled magnetic field, it's an induction principle. So as we generate the magnetic field through the current and the in the coil in the road, it actually induces a current into the electric vehicle and that creates that transfer of energy.


Wyatt: [00:03:32] I'm trying to think of how I would try and describe this to a third grader, because I won't understand it until I can figure out how I describe it to a third grader.Is it kind of like a fan blowing on a like a wind turbine, except for instead of moving air particles around, it's moving magnetic fields around it possible?...You can say, no, it's fine,


Regan Zane: [00:04:01] But these are all ways to help, help. Imagine that you don't have to make that physical connection. You're right. So even though you can't see the connection, there are other principles in play. And so, for example, I think could be relevant in the idea that one option is you could you could reach out, you could force a windmill to turn by touching it or spinning it. But you can also do so by generating wind and letting that wind transfer the energy over. So you're right, even though you couldn't see the transfer, you can't see the wind. This is a similar principle. Instead of having an electrical wire connecting between the road and the vehicle, you can have this other medium, the magnetic field that you can't see. But much like the wind transferring to the air, it is actually able to couple and transfer energy through that meeting.


Wyatt: [00:04:50] The challenges of charging a car moving on a road seem insane to me. Just how does that work?


Regan Zane: [00:04:56] We embed coils in the roadway that carry currents that are energized in sections and it's the vehicle drives over them. It turns out as the vehicle comes over the coil, it creates a resonance with those coils and essentially self detects that vehicle as it comes over. So if you're standing on the side of the road, you could imagine seeing the roadway, at least in concept, energizing one segment after another as a vehicle comes by that allows the vehicle then to generate a current on the vehicle, which charges the battery.


Wyatt: [00:05:26] So it turns on as the vehicle's over it. So it's not even just like throwing out energy on it all the time. That's cool.The explanation this sounds great. What are the practical challenges of actually implementing it?


Regan Zane: [00:05:42] Well, there are many challenges, it's even larger than some of the discussion we're having right now, this idea of wireless charging is really just one piece of the puzzle. It's it's part of that challenge of how is it we can get electric vehicles that are connected more continuously, more frequently? How do we how do we find new ways to charge vehicles that don't force you to wait an hour every time you start to charge and don't require such high power levels to charge? So as we look at some of the practical challenges, some of them are tied into the charging technology itself. Similarly, we also look at how do we program the network and control when and even where you do charge that vehicle. And we could maybe come to that discussion later at some of the challenges, specifically around the wireless charging. We have significant ones, as you can probably imagine. One is our roads are expected to last 20 to 40 years. What are we going to put in the road that will truly last that that long time frame and do so reliably? How do we do this with a wide range of temperature conditions? This needs to run in the coldest regions in the nation and in the hottest sections in the summer. So these are some of the challenges we're up against. It's the materials. It's the manufacturability is the integration of the components and the coordinated management of all of these aspects.


Wyatt: [00:07:02] Yeah, I'm aren't there systems like this already existing for like buses and some countries already. And then what are you trying to do to level up what's already been done?


Regan Zane: [00:07:18] It's a great question and that's how a lot of what we consider transformative programs really develop. Essentially, the stars have to align for four major change to have. There are multiple pieces of technologies that that already exist. And now we're seeing an opportunity to pull them together and step it up or to to bring it really to scale. Of course, wireless charging has been around for a hundred years as well. Nicola pitched this some time ago and had even demonstrations at the time. However, at the time, we just didn't have the other associated technologies needed to make this practical, to make this cost effective. And that's really what's been changing over the past one to two decades. So over this time frame, we're getting new materials, new devices, new components that are being integrated into our power systems and our power components and batteries have advanced significantly in terms of their capability. And behavior is the culmination of these components that are bringing this all together. Wireless charging systems. They have been demonstrated and proven over the past decade. We have a system that was shown in South Korea in operation for electric buses over a small section of roadway. There's a new roadway with one of our partners, electric, and that's being deployed in Sweden even as we speak and will be in operation over the next year and demonstrated over the next couple of years. There are new pilots being announced in Germany. There are lots of things happening in this space. There are also static chargers that are out there today. One of our partners, Wave, has high powered stationary chargers that are used for electric buses. They have chargers up at two hundred and fifty kilowatts today in operation in California.


Regan Zane: [00:08:58] We have projects together with Wave and some of the other partners looking at even half a megawatt, even one megawatt Chargers, one that's a partnership with Kenworth and UPS. The Department of Energy is funding this project, but we'll be demonstrating a one megawatt charger in Seattle and Portland for this UPS trucks.


Wyatt: [00:09:17] Yeah, what is a megawatt?


Regan Zane: [00:09:19] So it's roughly one megawatts of power is roughly what it takes to to power a good sized city block or a couple of large skyscrapers in the city.


Wyatt: [00:09:31] And how fast does that charge us now?


Regan Zane: [00:09:34] The one megawatt project, one million watts so that we're planning. And in Seattle, this is for a regional long haul, like an 18 wheeler truck. The big upside on the on the side, a truck like this is going to require a significant amount of battery capacity to do the regional route from Seattle to Portland. And that's really the target for that project. So for that project, we intend with the one megawatt charger to charge the battery in thirty minutes. Oh, wow.


Wyatt: [00:10:07] So earlier you mentioned the stars have to align and they are aligning for electrified roadways.


Wyatt: [00:10:13] What stars are there? What things have we been waiting for? What things are we still waiting for?


Regan Zane: [00:10:20] Well, what we've really been looking to to see for this to come together, we have a societal need and in our case, our needs are the growing demand for transportation and movement of people and goods here in the country. We're seeing significant growth in the demand, particularly in the freight and the moving of goods. covid is really push that up a bit, but I think it's here to stay. Additionally, we're seeing environmental I'll get to the economy, but but we're seeing environmental impact of transportation and our mobile sources for air quality and emissions. And this is something that ultimately has got to be addressed. And we're reaching that point where it's recognized air quality is hurting our health, it's hurting our economy. It's something that it's a bipartisan issue that we recognize needs to be dealt with. And then we have the economic impacts of these components. So there's there's kind of a societal piece of this. The other part is on the technology level, the building blocks that we need to take energy from the electric utility and ultimately generate what is needed for this charging system is new developments over the past decade have also come to the point where these technologies are truly possible and they can be done cost effectively.Those are big aspects of the stars aligning. Another component of this is the electric utility. We've seen growing demand for electricity and electric demand here in the nation. We also have emissions from the electric utilities and the need to improve emissions from the electric utility. This is one of those stars that we're looking at the alignment of saying, well, how is it we could look at more of what we call decarbonised grid? That means moving away from the coal and in non-renewable sources and moving towards more renewable sources with lower emissions. But a significant challenge in moving to more renewable loading on the electric grid is a lot of the renewable sources don't respond well to peak loads, meaning loads that come on demand and go very high and very low and used to be more predictable, more continuous, more like the sun coming over the top of the sky. So what we're seeing together with these is a need for new load opportunities on the electric grid that could be more amenable and a better fit for renewable sources. And we're seeing the societal need in these technology developments that all come together to say so now is the time to make this happen.


Wyatt: [00:12:54] Yeah. Yeah. How so are you saying that electrified roadways are a better fit with a lot of these renewable sources of power, like you only get free power if the sun's out or if the wind's blowing or something like that and something like that?


Regan Zane: [00:13:09] I often pitch it as the one hundred year old paradigm of gasoline vehicles. And the assumption is, as you drive your car at will, you can show up just about anywhere. You get to the fueling station and refuel essentially on demand and operate. When we plug into the wall, we receive electricity. And again, it should be on demand and and it should meet our full needs. If you if you apply these two models to electrifying vehicles, which is, of course, the trajectory we're on, it creates a bit of a challenge. You can scale that back, but we'll still be looking at a very high powered four door sedan to make it so it's not the seven hour charge. If we continue with that on demand model, what that means is vehicles show up at random locations, connect to the utility and expect this high powered charging. This, unfortunately, requires more what I call pecky or more capable sources, which are typically natural gas spinning up additional what we call spinning reserves or or inefficient reserves on the electric utility. This is not solar power. You can't turn on the sun quite like that. You can't turn on the wind power quite like that.


Regan Zane: [00:14:16] So if instead we could have more flexibility in the charging where vehicles, if we had more control and more predictability on how and when we were to charge these vehicles, that could be game changing on the impact on the grid. Now, envision an electric road. Why does that change anything for us? The big difference, the significant difference here, you just go about your drive cycles, as you normally would. And by having your charge as you're driving now, you require less battery on your vehicle and the charging rate at the utility is much lower. You're not requiring this type of charge to charge you very short time. The electric roadway has that possibility through that flexibility and managed charging end up with much lower peak loads, which means the infrastructure cost is significantly lower on the utility. And if they can do some management and prediction based on your driving patterns and schedule and our driving is actually pretty predictable. That's why we have rush hour. So if these things can be managed and predicted, we can build infrastructure around them and in that way we can incorporate more renewable sources into the grid.


Wyatt: [00:15:23] Yeah, yeah. Are these electrified roadways? Is it like huge long stretches? The coils would be running throughout i-15 or just like little hotspots.


Regan Zane: [00:15:34] So you played Mario Kart, I assume.


Wyatt: [00:15:37] Yeah, yeah, yeah.


Regan Zane: [00:15:39] Come over a little blue section and that gives you a shot of energy. So it won't be quite that short. But the question here is how high is the power of the charger in the road? So we have two extremes. One option is we find the actual power of the car needs. We electrify one hundred percent of the road at that power level, which is actually a pretty low power level. The other option is we re electrify a portion of the road, let's say 10 percent of the road. That means we need 10 times higher power. So that would mean we we do less 10 times less construction on the road. So right now we're working out that tradeoff. What's more cost effective? Is it more cost effective, electrify more of the road at lower power or less of the road at higher power? Our current models are assuming a model somewhere in the ballpark of 20 to 30 percent. So. So we might go there, you might go 10, 20, 30 miles with no electrification and then go a few miles that are electrified and then and then back again. So that's that's how this would likely look.


Wyatt: [00:16:40] I know that you don't have a crystal ball and you can't tell the future, but what is kind of the imagined rollout for these electrified roads? Is it going to be like initially for like public transportation systems or freight line stuff, partnering with those very specific people until it becomes available and commercial cars?


Regan Zane: [00:16:59] It will be a combination of the options that you just highlighted. And keep in mind, the electric road and the wireless charging on the electric road was one piece of the technology. Other pieces to accomplish what I just described would be the networked communications and the integration of transportation networks, as I call them, which is your traffic management and behavior with the electric utility and models and control that electric utility. And so that incremental rollout could include aspects of the connectivity and the control. And the man is charging even with our existing plug in systems and a transition in this more capable, more flexible option of charging vehicles while they're driving on the road. So early, early targets, low hanging fruit here would be fleet operated vehicles so we can convert large fleets at a time on heavily utilized roadways. For example, here in Utah, we're looking at the inland port to. This is one scenario that we've been in discussions with with the Utah and Port Authority, where now we'll have distribution centers with semi trucks that will be going back and forth between fixed areas and locations. How do we electrify these fleets? And that's an example of an early scenario that could really make sense.


Wyatt: [00:18:14] You recently got a big grant that is probably going to be helpful in doing all this. Can you tell me a little more about that?


Regan Zane: [00:18:21] We have federal funding from multiple agencies, so we have major awards from the Department of Energy covering some of the components that we've talked about. And then now we've recently received a new award from the National Science Foundation, one of our core federal agencies in the leader in research across our nation for fundamental research in new technology. So the Engineering Research Center is a flagship program for NSF research that is intended to pull together researchers from multiple disciplines. Multiple universities attract industry involvement and really make change in society. So that's exciting. This is a 50 million dollar grant over 10 years intended to be a catalyst for a stake in the ground that says Utah is going to be leading this out of the space and our corps partners across our partner states and our international partners. We are going to be leading the way for electrified transportation in this charging infrastructure in the coming decades.


Regan Zane: [00:19:19] Yeah, yeah. You've already mentioned some of your partners or some of the other people working on this. Why are these partnerships important and what do we gain out of having them?


Wyatt: [00:19:32] The little discussion that we've had here? What are we attempting to do? We're looking at literally transforming two of the largest industries in the nation, the transportation industry and the utility industry. This is going to require some significant change, change in thinking new technology to make this happen. And this is multidisciplinary. There's just no way any single faculty member certainly could have an impact. But even across disciplines, it wouldn't be possible for even a single university to have this level of Catalist Kabbalistic change in society. We've selected strategic partners that have unique expertise across these disciplines, you know, civil, electrical, mechanical, computer science, different ways of thinking and approaching these problems. They also have different connections. We have partners that are connected with their own state departments of transportation. They have different industry connections. They have relationships. They've built over time in different federal agencies, as well as with their state agencies and local governments. Our international partner allows us to think outside of our of our borders and understand that that technology transformation like this is going to require world wide acceptance. And so it helps us think about this from a broader perspective. It requires this level of thinking to to understand the whole problem that we're up against and find solutions that will really push us through that barrier.


Wyatt: [00:20:56] Yeah, yeah. So why is this happening here at Utah State University?


Regan Zane: [00:21:03] There are many reasons, one of which is the vision and the investment that we have been able to achieve here, the group of faculty that we have involved. And I appreciate being the spokesperson here for the program. And I've been a significant part of this vision. But we have a strong collaboration across across the disciplines, across the colleges here at Utah State University that have helped pull this together. We've had multiple administrations. You know, this is over the past 10 years. And at each stage, we've had significant support here at Utah State University that has allowed us to create a state of the art facilities. It's a facility we call the electric vehicle and Rodway facility that Uber is now becoming the showcase systems integration facility for this new center Aspire. But it's actually been in operation for five years and we launched this in twenty fifteen. This was forward thinking and significant investment here within Utah State and then the state of Utah. Without the state support, it just wouldn't be happening here in Utah as opposed to potentially growing and happening elsewhere. So these are have have really driven part of why this would happen here. The other part actually goes straight to your initial thought and comment of why why would this be so important to Utah? Well, believe it or not, we're one of the most urbanised states in the country. A lot of people don't realize that. But the vast majority of our population lives in the narrow corridors, 15 near Salt Lake. And yet at the same time, it's also relatively rural state that we do have large rural area and population. And what we have found is that it actually creates a nice what we call a test bed. It's a it's a nice environment to recognize. Well, A, we are urbanized and we have significant environmental challenges from from from particulate and other. Pollutants in the air because of our inversion in each of these valleys, so it's a combination of those pieces and now to be what we call that test, then it's that we're we're big enough that we have the challenges and we need to have them addressed. But we're small enough. We can actually I don't know if you want to say play around, but but we're small. If we can make a few of these changes and we can test and we can pilot and we can we can create best practices for the nation out of our testbeds, here is something that's a little more difficult to do. If you're in downtown L.A. and it looks it looks to be a good environment where we can test and beat out the urban aspects of our technology. We can test that out the rural aspects of our technology, and we can do it in a state that's been quite forward thinking.


Wyatt: [00:23:38] Yeah, yeah. Coming. How does this serve rural people or will it not serve them for a while and they'll just have to stick with more traditional transportation?


Regan Zane: [00:23:50] It's an important question and that's an important aspect of what we're pursuing here within Aspire and in part of our discussion and pitch as we discuss the program with NSF. You know, if we look at the entire battery centric approach to the solution, let's just let's just put five, six hundred mile range energy storage on the vehicle and and handle this with the gas station model. We've already highlighted some of the challenges of that model. But another challenge, that model is it essentially bypasses the rural areas and says we're going to put our charging stations and that in the major locations, we're going to put create enough energy storage somehow on our vehicle and just essentially bypass the rural area and let them do. The interesting aspect here of an electrified roadway means that we're going to need power generation throughout the regions where a lot of these major roadways would transition from city to city, which in many cases crosses through the rural areas. It's paid for essentially by the urban areas and the transit of goods and people, you know, along the highways and the interstate. But the rural area actually gets the benefit because it's in their area that the jobs would be created to build that roadway and to build in that infrastructure and to build in the power generation along the roadway. But also, now that you have that infrastructure, we can use that infrastructure to charge electric vehicles in that rural area at almost no cost because they're loading would be relatively small compared to the higher loading of the traffic on the on the roadways. So that's the idea is it would both be job creation in those regions, plus infrastructure development paid for by the broader whole that would actually allow the urban areas to go to a transition and adopt electric vehicles. We're looking at 20 years out or more before that would fully be a transition. However, I think it is quite possible that we could be looking at pilots in the coming years. We give examples around the world where these are happening today. These could certainly be happening in Utah and they could be expanded to the point where it could meet some of the needs of our regional operations even within the next five years.


Wyatt: [00:26:03] What is it like to be working towards such a long term goal? I can't imagine being working on something that will be that far out from happening.


Regan Zane: [00:26:17] It's exciting and it's overwhelming, no question that you get both of these emotions. The exciting part is that there really are things happening today. We have the partnerships to make a lot of this happening. It's fun to see that these technologies can can really have an impact. It's fun to see that our students are learning new skills in a way that will create new job opportunities and give them an exciting future. And it's exciting to see that indeed, we're actually going to be looking at pilots of these technologies in public roadways and in public environments within the coming years. So this this is fun to see roll out.It's overwhelming because as we're looking at this, we are envisioning the challenge of this having broad societal impact over a time period of decades, that that is overwhelming.


Wyatt: [00:27:05] That was my conversation with Dr. Reagen Zane. If you'd like to meet another U.S. researcher who's helping the future of your commute, go listen to Episode 12 with Dr. Patrick Singleton. He might not be working on electrified roadways, but he does ask people how they feel about teleportation. Please share this episode of Instead With a Friend. Don't forget to subscribe and follow at instead podcast on Instagram. Instead, it's produced with the assistance of Nick Vázquez. This episode was produced and edited by me Wyatt as part of my work in the Office of Research at Utah State University.