Pa. business aims to recharge electric vehicles wirelessly

Andrew Maykuth

MALVERN, Pa. – Imagine a world in which a vehicle is refueled with the ease of E-ZPass: hands free, no credit card swiping, a completely background transaction.

Andy Daga envisions such a world. Daga, 61, is chief executive of Momentum Dynamics Corp., a Malvern tech company that has developed a wireless recharging system for electric vehicles in which energy is transferred from a panel embedded in the pavement, through the air, into an EV.

Daga says the system is similar to a wireless recharger for a cellphone, though it transfers energy in far bigger volumes. He believes wireless recharging will extend the distances that electric vehicles can travel, helping to overcome “range anxiety” about battery limitations that has hindered widespread consumer adoption of EVs.

“This is really revolutionary, to automatically operate fast-charging systems that nobody needs to interact with,” said Daga. “Your vehicle will automatically charge itself without thinking about it.”

Until the company can develop a network of wireless chargers embedded into parking lots and roadways, Momentum Dynamics is focused on serving a market of large electric vehicles such as municipal buses that follow a circuit and return repeatedly to the same location, where they get a quick charge, like a marathon runner taking gulps of water midrace.

“We make incremental charges along the way,” said Daga. “That bus can then have unlimited range.”

Efficiency: Not everyone shares Daga’s conviction that wireless charging is the technology that will give EVs the market breakthrough the industry desires. About 100,000 battery-electric vehicles were sold in the United States last year, less than 1 percent of the market.

“Wireless charging isn’t as efficient as battery swapping or a corded solution,” said Scott Shepard, a senior energy research analyst with Navigant Research.

Daga disagrees and says that wireless charging represents a cost-competitive solution, particularly in markets for buses, industrial vehicles such as forklifts, or short-haul trucks in ports.

Momentum Dynamics installed a new wireless charger last month at a Link Transit municipal bus terminal in Wenatchee, Washington, where it provides five-minute top-up charges to an electric bus before it departs on its next scheduled circuit. The company launched a charging system last year at the Regional Transit Authority in Howard County, Maryland, in suburban Baltimore, and is currently installing a device in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Seamless: Without the en route wireless charges, Wenatchee’s electric bus would run out of juice before the end of the day, said Todd Daniel, the agency’s maintenance and technology manager. The wireless charger means the bus can stay in service for a full 16-hour day.

Daniel said the recharging process is invisible to passengers. “You don’t know anything is different when this bus pulls over on a pad,” he said. “Passengers are getting on and off and nobody has a clue it’s getting charged.”

To a wired world accustomed to copper cables, wireless energy transfer seems magical. Conventional AC electrical current is converted into magnetic waves in a pad embedded into the pavement. A receiver mounted on the vehicle’s undercarriage turns the magnetic energy into DC electric current that is stored in the vehicle’s battery. MD’s system is designed to operate with an air gap of about 12 inches.

“It’s hard for the public to believe that,” said Daniel. “They can’t believe we’re transferring electricity through a magnetic field into the bus with no connection. It just blows people’s minds.”

The company: Momentum Dynamics, which Daga calls “a Silicon Valley start-up in the suburbs of Philadelphia,” was formed in 2009 and now employs 28 people, mostly engineers, in a crowded Malvern warehouse.

MD’s offices have the appearance of a garage workshop with intensely focused engineers huddled around computers, oscilloscopes, and exposed circuit panels. Their quest is to increase the power throughput for the next generation of charging systems, while reducing weight, size and cost of the equipment.

The Wenatchee bus system is the first deployment of a 200-kilowatt system – about four times more powerful than MD’s previous system, and an industry milestone. Greater wattage delivers more power to vehicles more quickly, a critical factor to a transit system that needs to turn around buses rapidly. Daniel said the MD system adds about 16 miles of range to an electric bus in a five-minute charge.

The transmitter and receiver are matched to the same magnetic frequency, about 85 kilohertz, so that energy losses are minimal and the system operates at 95 percent efficiency, Daga said, comparable to a plug-in charger.

Safety: Daga said the system is safe, and MD’s publicity video includes a person holding a working iPhone sandwiched between the magnetic panels. “We’re showing it’s safe,” said Daga. “It doesn’t give you any tingle. It doesn’t give you any heat. It doesn’t cause any damage to yourself or your phone.”

The electric vehicle market is advancing rapidly – the European Union and China are tightening regulations that force automakers to reduce emissions, while Britain and France intend to ban new gasoline and diesel cars by 2040. Several automakers, including Volvo, have announced plans to move away from internal combustion engines.

Wireless charging systems are expensive. Daga said a wireless charging unit alone costs about $135,000, though the price is expected to decline as more are produced. And he maintains that electric buses have lower operating costs that will recover the higher capital costs in a few years.

The Regional Transit Authority in suburban Baltimore last year spent $3.7 million to buy three new electric BDY buses equipped with wireless chargers, said David Cookson, a Howard County transportation planner. About $450,000 of the cost covered MD’s charger and the installed equipment for the buses. All the costs were covered by the Federal Transportation Administration, which is studying the technology.

Shepard, the Navigant analyst, said that range-anxiety issues with EVs are related more to the capacity of a vehicle’s battery and charging infrastructure. The cost and time needed to build widespread wireless technology, including embedding the chargers in roadways, may be eclipsed by the advent of ultrafast plug-in chargers and improved battery technology.

“There’s still a lot to be learned about where the market is going to go,” said Shephard. “It’s still up in the air how effective wireless charging will be relative to other technologies in general, and other energy transfer methods.”

Origin: Daga, a Brooklyn native who was trained as an architect and an aerospace engineer, got the idea for EV charging after participating in an Air Force study on wireless power transfers for orbital spacecraft about a decade ago when he saw potential applications for terrestrial motor vehicles.

He and his cofounders, Jonathan Sawyer, vice president of product design, and the late Bruce Long, vice president of research and development, decided to aim at developing the technology to deliver high power, especially for the bus market, which they believed would be one of the first sectors to electrify on a big scale.

Daga said the company has raised about $15 million from individual investors to develop its system, and is now looking for corporate investors to pony up about $60 million for the next phase of development. He said the company needs to expand space and triple employment to commercialize its products.

But they’re in a race with other wireless tech developers to establish the wireless standard for the entire industry. A Utah company, Wave Inc., is also aiming at the electric bus market. Several competitors are developing wireless systems for light vehicles, including Qualcomm and WiTricity, a Massachusetts company that has a licensing arrangement with Toyota.

Daga has no shortage of confidence and ambition.

“We believe we sit at the top of the technology pyramid,” he said. “Our investors believe we’re going to win the technology race.”