Ford Motor Co. is working with scientists at Purdue University in Indiana on a patent-pending plan to slash the average time it takes to recharge all-electric vehicles at charging stations from an estimated 25 minutes to 5 minutes.
“That’s a game changer,” said longtime industry analyst John McElroy, host of “Autoline After Hours” podcast and webcast. “All of a sudden, it makes electrics far more viable for everyday use for people. It opens up the potential EV market.”
The man leading the effort, a mechanical engineer, has developed cutting-edge technology used in jumbo jets and spaceships.
Now he’s applying that intelligence to all-electric cars — and how to reduce the time it takes to recharge batteries so people don’t feel anxious about watching their vehicle run low. This is a physics class that applies learnings to the real world.
Professor Issam Mudawar, 66, a Beirut, Lebanon, native who came to the United States to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has spent nearly four decades developing scientific solutions to industry’s trickiest challenges.
He initially predicted a two-year window until the electric vehicle charging technology comes to market. His team is working around the clock to make it happen by 2023.
But he told the Free Press in an interview it could happen even sooner than his forecast.
Mudawar is in the final test stages for a special charging cable.
That’s it. A cable.
But what it does is magical.
Knowing that batteries can overheat when charged too quickly, automakers have been trying to figure out a way to cool down the process.
Rather than redesign the battery, work instead to cool the process down.
“Today, chargers are limited in how quickly they can charge an EV’s battery due to the danger of overheating. Charging faster requires more current to travel through the charging cable,” Michael Degner, senior technical leader, Ford Research and Advanced Engineering 1, said in November in a Ford news release. “The higher the current, the greater the amount of heat that has to be removed to keep the cable operational.”
That charging cable that plugs into an electric car resembles the hose you see at the gas station pump. The thing that transmits fuel — or energy.
But this new cable design from Purdue uses liquid to cool the cable, then turns the liquid to vapor.
This vapor element is revolutionary.
Mudawar has spent nearly four decades at Purdue developing ways to more efficiently cool electronics.
The lab in Purdue has come up with a solution to a scenario that has paralyzed the industry — where too much heat is produced to manage with available technology, Mudawar said.
Using an alternative cooling method, he and his team have designed a cable that can deliver a current 4.6 times that of the fastest available EV chargers on the market today by removing up to 24.22 kilowatts of heat, Purdue said in a news release in November. The project was funded by a research and development alliance between Ford and Purdue.
Another reason for faster charging is because the need to charge is not predictable even though it’s tracked on the dashboard screen like a fuel gauge. Battery charge is affected by speed, weather and topography.
Mudawar, by the way, decided against pursuing a career in oil painting to dedicate his life to science.
Addressing ‘range anxiety’
Worry about distance a car can drive on a battery is often called “range anxiety,” and this new technology addresses that issue. But that’s not even the best part.
“People have said that range anxiety is one of the big things. But no, no, charge time is the new range anxiety,” McElroy, of “Autoline,” said. “People think, OK, I can live with an electric car but I don’t want to be stopping for 30-45 minutes to charge if I’m on a road trip.”
A prototype of this new technology, this charging cable, is being tested in the lab now. In coming months, Mudawar will study the speed of charge on various electric vehicles and move as quickly as possible to get the product to market.
While automakers led by Tesla — including GM, Ford and Volkswagen — have battery electric vehicles on the market currently, public use of charging stations is expected to surge in the U.S. with the introduction of bestselling pickup trucks.
Ford delivers to customers its all-electric Ford F-150 Lightning in spring 2022 and General Motors is scheduled to deliver its all-electric Silverado in fall 2023, which will significantly increase the number of all-electric vehicles on the road.
‘Would you care?’
Computer engineer Jim Buczkowski, a senior technical fellow and current leader of Ford’s research team, has been involved in the evolution of electronics and software for four decades at Ford including the F-150 Lightning. He said now is an especially “exciting time” under Ford CEO Jim Farley, who has committed publicly to going all-in on electric vehicles — committing billions of dollars during his first year running the company.
The faster-charging challenge can’t be overstated, Buczkowski told the Free Press.
“It’s the time that’s used to put energy back into the vehicle so you can continue driving,” he said. “Would you care if you had 125 mile range if you could get another 125 miles in one minute? But if it takes you 3, 4, 10 hours to give you 500 miles of range, that’s where the problem is. It’s the time element. You can put a hose up and get 20 gallons in 2 to 3 minutes.”
Getting the energy from the electrical grid into the battery faster is top priority.
“Do people really want bigger batteries or more batteries or do they just want to refill the energy so they can get distance, mileage and range faster? At Purdue, we’re working to get the energy into the vehicle faster. And transferring that amount of energy can create a lot of heat,” said Buczkowski.
Tiny units of energy
When you think about fuel and gasoline, the liquid contains an amount of energy per gallon of gasoline, he explained. The energy is stored in the liquid. When the fuel is ignited and combusts, the stored energy is released. The released energy is doing the work that powers the vehicle.
Filling a gas tank is filling it with energy.
“Electricity in EVs is different,” Buczkowski said. “You’re taking electrical energy from the grid and storing it in a battery to be reused to power a motor that powers the vehicle.”
In one case, you’re taking the energy already stored in a chemical and combusting it to release the energy. In the other case, you’re taking the energy of electricity and moving it to the battery to store it. Energy in the fuel is already stored in the liquid.
A battery electric vehicle is operating off energy you transfer and store in the battery.
“When you connect the plug to the vehicle, you’re actually moving the energy from the grid into the vehicle through the wires,” Buczkowski said.
“When you fill your tank with liquid fuel, none of the energy is lost when you’re transferring it to the tank,” he said. “When you transfer energy to a battery, some of it is lost as heat in the wires as you transfer it. The more and faster you transfer the energy to the battery, the more heat you create in the wire you’re using to transfer it.”
Electrifying cars requires a different way of thinking.
Engineers spend a lot of time trying to reduce vehicle weight so it uses less energy.
After about 300 miles or so, in general, people will need to recharge, Mudawar said. If there’s no charging station, a driver ends up on the side of the road. Like running out of gas in cars that aren’t electric.
“When people go to the charging station, it takes them well over 20 minutes to charge the car. They’re standing there waiting and waiting. The situation is very frustrating,” Mudawar said. “This is where our technology is able to resolve a big part of the problem. Cut down the time to something more manageable. If you cut it down to 5 minutes, it becomes comparable to filling your car with gas.”
Meanwhile, companies all over the world are trying to improve batteries. But this Ford-Purdue alliance focuses instead on battery cooling.
“When you supply electrical current through a wire, including the wires you have at home, there’s a finite amount of heat dissipated,” Mudawar explained.
This applies to cellphones charging, computer cords charging. All feel warm to the touch. And those are small batteries.
“Heat is not a problem for simple applications,” he said. “The problem comes when you have a huge amount of electric current and the amount coming out of the wire — the conductor — is enormous. Which means, you’re going to melt the insulation around it and have a disaster on hand if you don’t remove some of that heat. This is where we come in.”
Working with NASA
His expertise is transferring large amounts of heat and energy from tiny spaces. Imagine large data centers that need to dissipate large amounts of heat to keep the systems from overheating.
“Another example would be aviation electronics, the brains of an aircraft,” said Mudawar, who is also an aerospace engineer. “You have to dissipate large amounts of heat and safety is a major concern. Another is space systems. We work closely with NASA on space technologies where you have components dissipating large amounts of heat that has to be removed to prevent burning up devices.”
Purdue and Ford have done the experimental work to validate the project.
The next step is bringing it to market.
Patents and licenses
Mudawar is presently in negotiations with multiple companies with a goal of setting up a massive high-tech facility funded by automakers, investors and the government to test batteries, charging equipment. That would speed up the process.
Charging companies have been reaching out to Mudawar for weeks.
“The problem is, companies do not like to disclose what they’re working on. Because of that, they’re really shielding themselves from information available,” he said. “When you blend technical know-how with more science and physics at a university, you can come up with solutions fairly quickly.”
What’s taking time, now, is finalizing legal, licensing and intellectual property issues.
Ford has more than 2,500 U.S. patents in electrification technologies and more than 4,000 more pending, Ted Miller, Ford’s manager of Electrification Subsystems and Power Supply Research, said in the Ford news release.
It’s worth noting that the prototype hasn’t been tested on electric vehicles yet.
However, Mudawar and his students have demonstrated in the lab that their cable accommodates a current of more than 2,400 amperes — where just a 1,400-ampere minimum would be needed to reduce charging times for large commercial electric vehicles to 5 minutes, Purdue said in its news release. The most advanced chargers in the industry deliver only currents up to 520 amperes, and most chargers available to consumers support currents of fewer than 150 amperes.
As the auto industry pushes performance limits in electrification, thermal management becomes more challenging, said Tom McCarthy, Ford director of Energy, Propulsion and Sustainability within Research and Advanced Engineering.
“If we can overcome the heat transfer problem, we can get a faster charge,” he said. “It’s really kind of asking yourself, ‘What are those technology breakthroughs that allow you to get to another level? … This is just an exciting time to be in the industry. To find these kinds of insights and being able to do things that haven’t really been done before.”
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This story was originally published January 7, 2022 4:07 PM.