UA working to enhance electric car technology

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 376 views 

Alan Mantooth, an electrical engineering professor at the University of Arkansas, recently received a five-year, $1.5 million grant to help design the next generation of electric vehicles, with drive systems that are more powerful, smaller and less expensive.

Mantooth received the grant from the U.S. Department of Energy as part of its 2025 goals, and he’s one of up to five faculty researchers at the UA who will work on the project. The UA is one of 10 universities working on the assignment led by Oak Ridge and Sandia national laboratories.

The UA researchers will design and fabricate silicon carbide integrated circuits for power modules and develop methods for packaging and integrating the circuits with other components. They will also develop sensors and work on thermal management and broader, system-level integration.

Their work will be completed at the National Center for Reliable Electric Power Transmission, a 6-megawatt power electronics test facility at the Arkansas Research and Technology Park in Fayetteville. Mantooth, who’s executive director for the center, said the UA has the largest power program in the Western Hemisphere and has 14 faculty focused on designing and developing technology for electrified transportation. Mantooth also oversees a program working with Caterpillar to develop a 500-kilowatt electric drive system for heavy machinery. The program is supported by a three-year, $3 million grant from Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy of the Department of Energy.

With regard to the electric car project, the UA didn’t apply for it, but Oak Ridge selected the UA as its partner. Mantooth has been working with UA faculty Fang Luo and Simon Ang on the project, which started April 1, and other faculty, including Yue Zhao and Juan Balda, also may work on the project. The majority of the $1.5 million grant will be spent on student and faculty research and supplies to build the prototypes, said Mantooth, adding the UA can build its own electronics. It also can test the electronics with its 100-kilowatt test stand.

The overall project goal is to develop a 100-kilowatt traction drive system that’s 10 times smaller and half the cost of existing systems. In electric vehicles, the traction drive system comprises all the components that make it go. In a traditional passenger vehicle, this could be referred to as the powertrain, which includes the engine and transmission. The drive system would have about twice the power of a Toyota Prius, which has 55 kilowatts, Mantooth said.

Some of the project goals include increasing the life of an electric vehicle from 150,000 miles to 300,000 miles; decreasing the cost of the traction drive system from $12 per kilowatt to $6 per kilowatt, or about $600 for the complete system; and reducing its size from 30 liters to 3 liters, or about three water jugs.

“They’re targeting a $600 drivetrain. That is amazing,” Mantooth said. “So it is a grand challenge they’ve laid out.”

Mantooth expects four graduate students to work full time on the project, ranging from 20 to 40 hours per week. Undergraduate students also are expected to work on it, and he and the other faculty plan to spend one day a week on the project.

The UA researchers will work most closely with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and with researchers at Virginia Tech as they will work to pack more power into a smaller footprint. Each university and lab has its own strengths, and overall, about 70 to 80 people comprise the project team, including faculty, students and national lab staff.

An initial prototype of the traction drive system is expected to be completed in two or three years, and it will be followed by smaller drive systems. He expects the first prototype to have the largest size reduction.

The technology the UA and the other universities develop is owned by the universities, and U.S. automakers and their suppliers could purchase licenses to use the technology, Mantooth said. The federal government also can use the technology. Work on this project is expected to be completed in 2024.

Mantooth, who holds the Twenty-First Century Research Leadership Chair in the College of Engineering, said he’s been researching silicon carbide technology for 20 years, and as opposed to the silicon technology in phones and computers, silicon carbide technology is rugged and can withstand high temperatures.

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