DOE Pulse
  • Number 411  |
  • April 14, 2014

ORNL researcher helps create a ‘world’s first’ for electric vehicles

ORNL's Omer Onar demonstrates research in ORNL's Power Electronics and Electric Machinery lab to Andrea Gil of Clemson University and Ashok Moghe of Cisco Systems.

ORNL's Omer Onar demonstrates research
in ORNL's Power Electronics and Electric
Machinery lab to Andrea Gil of  Clemson
University and  Ashok Moghe of
Cisco Systems.

As a child in Istanbul, Turkey, Omer Onar told people he wanted to be an astronaut. His passion for science evolved into a more earthly area—cars. Onar now works with power electronics and electric vehicles in Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Electrical & Electronics Systems Research Division. 

In fact, Onar and his team received the Energy and Transportation Science Division’s Significant Event Award for accomplishing the world’s first dynamic wireless charging system with coils. Onar’s team also won a Department of Energy grant for “Wireless Charging of Electric Vehicles,” resulting in $11.8 million of funding over three years through the Vehicle Technologies Office.

In stationary charging, an EV parks over a charging platform, the vehicle and unit establish a connection and “do some handshaking” to safely initiate the wireless charging, Onar says. “ORNL is partnering with Toyota, General Motors, Evatran, Clemson University ICAR Center, Cisco, Duke Energy and International Rectifier. So it’s a real large group of prestigious entities and a very good budget,” he explains.

Onar received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from Yildiz Technical University in Turkey. During his second year of undergrad, Onar’s computer programming professor was one of the only instructors teaching MATLAB, an interactive mathematics system designed for engineering and scientific programming.

“I was doing very well in the class,” Onar says. “He asked me and a friend, ‘I’m going to draft a book for this area on MATLAB. Are you interested in joining me?’”

Onar agreed. The first and second editions of their book Proficiency in MATLAB became academic bestsellers in Turkey. “That was a turning point for me,” Onar says. Under his professor’s supervision, Onar got involved in electrical engineering and received his master’s degree.

He applied to schools in the United States to for his doctorate. To make his final decision, Onar researched the professors at the schools. Onar noticed the Illinois Institute of Technology professor was young and completed his doctorate in two years.

“I thought he would have a lot of time to spend with his students,” Onar says. “And I can devote myself better with a more caring professor. So I went to ITT.” He also discovered that ITT has unique laboratory capabilities in the field of power electronics and electric machines.

With publications galore en route to his PhD, Onar was nominated for the Transportation Electronics Fellowship, a worldwide single award granted by the IEEE Vehicular Technology Society in 2008.

Next to that award in his bookcase stands the Joseph J. Suozzi INTELEC Fellowship in Power Electronics, which he received the following year.

After graduation in 2010, Onar applied to work at ORNL. “In preparation for my interview, I came up with a couple of different systems that they could integrate: photovoltaic panels, energy storage systems and residential buildings,” Onar says.

Onar’s impressive interview resulted in his selection for an Alvin M. Weinberg Fellowship, and he joined the staff at ORNL a few months later.

Onar’s days at the lab revolve around EVs. Donning safety glasses and a smile, Onar introduces the new mail delivery car, a black Toyota Prius, and its accompanying wireless charging station. Funded by the lab’s Sustainable Campus Initiative, the installation of the wireless charging system is set to begin this month at ORNL’s mail station. 

To establish a charge, the vehicle must be in park with the doors closed. The weatherproof wireless charging system has 90 percent efficiency.

Onar discusses three different approaches for keeping EV batteries charged. The first technology has an EV simply park over the charging system—like ORNL’s mail delivery vehicle. This approach is ideal for a garage or a parking lot.

Second is opportunistic charging, strategically placing charging systems at bus stops or at airports.

The third approach is dynamic charging, or charging vehicles in motion. Installed under highway asphalt or concrete, these charging stations would charge EVs as they pass over them. Roadside vehicle sensors would identify the vehicle and battery to determine how much of a charge to apply.

The charging systems pose no danger to people walking near them or over them or to the computers or mobile phones people may be toting, Onar says. And EVs would need only slight modifications for their batteries to accept wireless recharging.

The dynamic wireless charging demonstration was funded by the ORNL Laboratory Director’s R&D funds for the past two years. Last year, ORNL achieved the world’s first in-motion wireless charging.

Although he personally doesn’t own an electric car, Onar estimates that by 2020, EVs will be much more common. Current battery technologies limit electric cars to a 75- to 100-mile range with one charge. The wireless power transfer technology would enable unlimited range—vacations and adventures with smaller and cost-effective battery packs.

“It’s fixing the problem of range anxiety,” Onar says. “You can drive wherever you want. You’ll sustain your charge without needing to stop and recharge your battery every couple of hours.”

Reasons for this shift to EVs and wireless charging include public health, national energy security, dependence on foreign oil, the environment, noise pollution and economic motivation. Driving a sedan-sized internal combustion vehicle 100 miles costs approximately $18 in gasoline. One hundred miles in an EV would cost the driver about $3 in electricity.

Although these projects consume a good amount of Onar’s time, he still manages to enjoy soccer, tennis and downtown Knoxville. He also hikes a lot. “Almost every weekend I discover a new greenway,” Onar says. “Or sometimes I drive to the Smokies.”

Maybe someday soon he’ll be making the drive in an EV. — Lauren Gregg

Submitted by DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory