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One day in the sparkling green future, tires will push electric vehicle range to new heights (and they might even talk to you, too).

Clean Transport

A Big Jolt For Electric Vehicle Range & Fuel Efficiency, Sparked By Tiny Jeep

One day in the sparkling green future, tires will push electric vehicle range to new heights (and they might even talk to you, too).

Okay, so it was only a toy Jeep, but when it rolled around the floor flashing its LED headlights, this particular toy Jeep demonstrated a first-of-its kind design for harvesting the waste energy that shoots away from your tires in the form of friction. Its makers say that the new system could increase your gasmobile mileage by 10%, and we’re thinking that it has potential as an electric vehicle range extender, too.

electric vehicle range triboelectric energy harvesting tires

Electric Vehicle Range & The Triboelectric Effect

What we’re calling the new electric vehicle range extender is the work of a research team composed of engineers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and scientists from Zhengzhou University in China.

It’s based on the triboelectric effect, which is fancyspeak for static electricity. Also called a “contact charge,” the triboelectric effect occurs when two different materials rub together or come in contact with each other.

This is where the toy Jeep comes in. To demonstrate the system on a trial basis, the research team attached specialized electrodes (more on that in a minute) to the tires of a toy Jeep equipped with six commercially available LED lights. As the Jeep moved, the electrodes came in and out of contact with the floor, causing the lights to flash, thus proving that the contact charge could be snared and put to use in the vehicle’s electrical systems.

That sounds simple enough, but it took about a year of work to develop the electrode, which the team has called S-TENG for single-electrode triboelectric nanogenerator.


According to the team, the friction between tire and ground reduces fuel efficiency by about 10%. If a gasmobile could save some of that wasted energy in the form of electricity, it could go into lightening today’s considerable load of climate control and electrical systems.

Greater electric vehicle range would be the result for electric vehicles.

The team notes that vehicle weight (heavier) and speed (faster) are variables that factor into improved fuel efficiency, but overall, they optimistically estimate a 50% energy conversion, resulting in a 10% increase in gas mileage. Their press materials didn’t offer an estimate for increased electric vehicle range but it could be in the same ballpark.

Who’s Gonna Pay For All This?

If the research progresses, the big hurdle is cost. So far, so good on that score. The team’s triboelectric study is available at Science Direct, and the abstract indicates that the design is “very simple, scalable and integratable.”

The S-TENG electrode that the team developed is based on a widely used, nontoxic, rubber-like material called polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS).

According to our friends over at Wikipedia, PDMS is the Sham-WOW of its class. A sampling of its uses includes medical devices, shampoos, food additives, caulking and lubricating materials, and heat-resistant tiles.

A research team at the University of Toronto has also been exploring the use of PDMS sheets for energy-efficient buildings.

Nothing Wasted In The Tire Of The Future

Speaking of harvesting energy from tires, we’re thinking that the Wisconsin effort could be paired with a new tire concept introduced by Goodyear earlier this year, apparently aimed at improving electric vehicle range.

The tire would flex and generate heat while in use, and the heat could be converted to electricity and stored in the battery.

At rest, the tire would absorb heat from sunlight (assuming you park outdoors), and that heat could also be harvested.

But, why stop there? A UK company called Schrader has teamed up with Pirelli Tire to develop a sensor-equipped “talking tire” that will improve fuel efficiency as well as extending the life of the tire.

If you’ve heard of any other tire-related fuel saving gizmos, drop us a note in the comment thread.

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Photo (cropped and altered) courtesy of UW-Madison College of Engineering.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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