LOGAN, Utah (AP) — Utah State University rolled out an electric transit bus Thursday that's capable of being recharged wirelessly and signals a revolution for road travel of the future.
Wireless power has been used for years in some consumer devices and in factory power strips. Now engineers say they've perfected it for vehicles with a system tailored for bus transit routes. The university said the technology is notable mainly for transferring a wireless charge through thin air with little loss in energy.
Utah State officials hope the new technology turns into a commercial success.
It's a "great leap forward in the science and engineering" of electric vehicles, said Robert T. Behunin, vice president of commercialization at the school.
"As a result of the work done by Utah State engineers, scientists and partners, EV owners and operators will now be able to simply drive over a pad in the ground to recharge their batteries, the benefits of which reach far beyond convenience," Behunin said.
The bus gets a wireless boost from charging pads the size of a dinner plate embedded in concrete, with a matching receiver plate on the underbelly of the bus. Electricity jumps the 10-inch air gap with little loss in energy — the key to enhanced technology developed by a team led by Hunter Wu, a university research scientist.
Utah State recruited Wu from the University of Auckland in New Zealand, where he earned a doctorate in electrical engineering in 2010. His team says the wireless device presents no risk of electrocution for anyone who stumbles across it in a road.
Officials say the bus that took passengers for a ride Thursday is a prototype of another bus that will be delivered shortly to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
The U.S. Department of Transportation gave WAVE Inc., a Utah State University spin-off company, a $2.7 million grant to set up an electrified bus route there. WAVE, in partnership with the Utah Transit Authority, will launch its first commercial demonstration in mid-2013 on the University of Utah's campus.
The University of Utah will be the first organization in the nation to use a shuttle bus that tops off its battery charge by merely sitting for a few minutes over a magnetic conductor.
With a seamless charging system, transit buses can use radically smaller batteries for a big weight savings. Frequent but brief stops for a wireless boost eliminate the need for overnight plug-in charging, which can't power a bus for a full day's use, said Wesley Smith, the chief executive of WAVE Inc.
"This technology makes electric buses competitive with their diesel hybrid and CNG counterparts," Smith said.
The pad will be embedded in pavement at the light-rail station at the school, where the bus will idle several minutes before picking up rail passengers for a quick shuttle through the heart of the campus.
Because the shuttle bus will travel a short circuit, it can use a small battery that can be recharged frequently. That translates into an 85 percent weight savings over conventional battery packs for plug-in vehicles, which have to draw on their power for an entire day before recharging becomes practical, Smith said.
The secret to the new system is frequent and quick charging, a concept that could be extended to a futuristic highway where all vehicles become electric and draw energy continuously from the pavement without having to stop for a recharge. However, experts say the investment will require enormous investments in new infrastructure, because highways would have to be ripped up for installation of wireless power strips.