Hands-Free Wireless Electric Vehicle Charging For The 21st Century

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In yet another sign that electric vehicles are a more sustainable solution for 21st century personal mobility than gas mobiles, researchers have propelled electricity through 11 inches of thin air, from an in-ground charging system all the way up into the waiting battery pack of a hybrid electric UPS truck, all without using their hands. What, they couldn’t try this on a Tesla?

electric vehicle charging
“Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers demonstrated on Feb. 27 a 20-kilowatt, bi-directional wireless charging system on a medium-class hybrid electric delivery truck” by Brittany Cramer/Oak Ridge National Laboratory, US Dept. of Energy.

Electric Vehicle Charging Good, Hands-Free Better

Yes, why UPS and not Tesla? That’s a good question. Wireless EV charging would be a nifty convenience for personal electric vehicle owners, and it looks like auto makers have tuned into the luxury car angle. However, the really big bucks — and the big sustainability payoff — comes into play for fleet vehicles.

If wireless charging saves time for fleet vehicles, it could offset any additional expense, and then some. That would provide fleet managers with solid bottom line incentives for transitioning to electric mobility, with extra credit for ditching diesel.

So, if you want to generate some interest in hands-free electric vehicle charging among diesel users, light duty trucks would be a good place to start.

That may be what the team at the Energy Department’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory had in mind. Earlier this year they demonstrated their new wireless EV charging system on a plug-in hybrid UPS delivery van equipped with 60-kilowatt battery packs.

They were pretty pleased with themselves. The 20-kilowatt system is capable of recharging the van in about three hours, which stacks up favorably against the 5-6 hour time slot typically allotted for onboard charging.

Slicing the charging time in half is pretty impressive, but that’s nothing compared to the lab’s goal of developing a wireless EV fast-charging system fast enough to recharge a battery pack in about as much time as it would take to fill a gas tank.

How Does Wireless Electric Vehicle Charging Work, Anyways?

That’s the easy part. Here’s the explainer from Oak Ridge:

“The technology takes energy from the grid and converts it to direct current (DC) voltage. Then a high-frequency inverter generates alternating current (AC), which in turn creates a magnetic field that transfers power across the air gap. Once the energy is transferred to the secondary coil across the air gap it is converted back to DC, charging the vehicle’s battery pack.”

Got all that? Good. It’s not as easy as it sounds. The Energy Department began pumping some serious dollars into wireless EV charging in 2012, and Oak Ridge first demonstrated a 20-kilowatt charging system back in 2016.

Come to think of it, back in 2013 Drayson Racing and Qualcomm joined hands in a wireless EV charging venture. Whatever happened to that?

It’s all water under the bridge now. Earlier this year industry observers began anticipating wireless charging for the commercial market sometime later this year, so let’s see what happens with that.

Two-Way Wireless Charging, With Energy Storage

But wait, there’s more. The Oak Ridge system is a bidirectional one, meaning it slides right in to the idea that you could coordinate a fleet of electric vehicle batteries to store a lot of energy.

Vehicle-to-grid energy storage is another way that fleet owners can leverage their electric vehicle investment for additional value. Vehicle energy storage can be deployed to avoid peak demand charges, take advantage of discounts and incentives, participate in grid services, and provide for energy security in case of grid issues.

If you’re thinking the US military is all over bidirectional charging like white on rice, run right out and buy yourself a cigar. Back in 2013 CleanTechnica took note of a cutting edge vehicle-to-microgrid system under development for the Department of Defense through Sandia National Laboratories. The company Go Electric participated, so perhaps its time to catch up with them.

As for UPS, the company is in position to tailor its delivery vans for wireless charging. UPS got kind of tired of waiting around for major automakers to tool up for the electric vehicle revolution. Earlier this year it acquired the EV startup Arrival with the aim of purpose-building 10,000 new electric fleet vehicles to its specifications.

Aside from wireless charging, that could include a measure of hands-free driving to dovetail with UPS’s newly introduced hands-free robot workforce, so stay tuned for more on that.

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Photo: “Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers demonstrated on Feb. 27 a 20-kilowatt, bi-directional wireless charging system on a medium-class hybrid electric delivery truck” by Brittany Cramer/Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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