NORTH LOGAN — As Utah State University’s new bus snaked around Old Main on Thursday afternoon, the driver honked the horn, joking that at least it was plenty loud for a student walking across the street with earbuds to hear it.
The new “Aggie Bus” — making its maiden trip as the first vehicle developed and designed in the United States to utilize wireless power to charge its batteries — is almost mute. Developed by the now closed Energy Dynamics Lab and the USU spin-out company WAVE, it is the first vehicle ever to receive wireless energy of up to 25 kilowatts with more than 90 percent efficiency over an air gap of 6 inches, USU researchers said at a demonstration in North Logan on Thursday.
Researchers developed the technology in summer of 2011, and spent the better part of this year retrofitting the bus.
USU officials announced on Thursday that the retrofitted bus for demonstration — complete with USU colors and logo — would be utilized on the USU Logan campus by spring of 2013.
“This is a landmark day for Utah State to have this bus in this garage, in Logan, Utah, with the extreme technicalities and nuances our team has overcome,” said Robert Behunin, vice president for USU commercialization and regional development, who supervises the wireless power efforts now that EDL has closed. “It’s really difficult to make this exciting; when we push the button, there isn’t even a noise. ... I don’t want to say anti-climactic because it really is cool; it’s beyond rocket science.”
Hunter Wu, director for USU commercial product development for wireless power transfer, explained how the bus is powered with the help of a single pad underneath it. When it matches up with an identical pad on the ground of a bus stop, it will charge to full power. Wu explained the original power comes from grid resources at 480 volts, and converts it to 600 volts. That comes into electronics that convert that energy to a “high-frequency alternating current.” That current is transferred to the powering pad on the ground, which is sent into the pad on the bus.
“It means a lot for any engineer,” Wu said when asked how he felt about the technology development coming to fruition. “It’s why I became an engineer in the first place — to see things I develop in the lab be used in the real world and change the transportation industry.”
The technology that USU has developed, researchers pointed out, enables the concept of an electric bus to come alive. Without wireless power transfer, said Wes Smith, CEO of WAVE, the electric buses would need “batteries so big passengers would not be able to fit on it.”
Michael Masquelier, chief technology officer for WAVE, said “this is one of the most transformational technologies I’ve seen in a long time,” likening wireless power transfer technology to the cell phone.
“If you think back to the original cell phone, people said they ‘didn’t want to buy it. Who am I going to call? It’s too expensive,’” Masquelier said. “Today it’s a device we simply can’t live without. ... (With wireless power transfer) the question came up about how many charging pads would be installed. Right now, they say one; in the future there will be multiple, and over time you can envision it will be added to (our) infrastructure nationwide.”
WAVE, in partnership with the Utah Transit Authority, will launch its first commercial demonstration in mid-2013 on the University of Utah’s campus. It will feature a 40-foot transit bus on a public transit route and an increase in wireless power transfer charging from 25 kilowatts to 50 kilowatts. That project has been funded by a $2.7 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration and the University of Utah, which purchased the bus.
In addition, WAVE will also develop wireless power technology for transportation projects in other parts of the U.S. and foreign countries like the Czech Republic, Smith said.
Right now, WAVE is in the process of hiring engineers to work on the UofU project and others, since the original engineering team from EDL — not the science team that includes Wu — left to work for another wireless power company, Witricity Corp., of Boston. That company is setting up an office in Logan, according to a source familiar with USU’s unveiled bus project.
Smith said even before EDL closed, WAVE was in the hiring process for engineers.
“The (original) engineers, while they developed the prototype, didn’t have the expertise we need to really put buses into commercial operation,” Smith said.