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Grant helps UCF plug into new technology

By Sabira Mawji
On October 30, 2013

A $9 million grant is sparking UCF research on electric vehicles.

The grant, which is from the U.S. Department of Transportation, will help UCF researchers to determine the future path of charging and utilizing electric vehicles in Florida in the next four years.

Since electrical vehicles are capable of storing energy, a new Electric Vehicle Transportation Center is the topic of this UCF grant research steered by five participants.

The new smart-grid enabled car chargers will have two-way communication and will be capable of using and feeding the electric transmission network.

The researchers include David Block, who is the director of Florida Solar Energy Center, a UCF research institute; UCF engineering professors Omer Tatari and Zhihua Qu and professors from the University of Hawaii and Tuskegee University.

Their research will be on electrical vehicle transportation and how a large number of electric vehicles will interact with the highway system and the electric utility grid.

Making the utility grid smarter is another keystone in the research -– transforming into the smart-grid.

“The idea of the smart-grid is to basically digitized the utility grid system,” Block said.

The $9 million grant consists of $1.4 million given to UCF researchers per year.

The project requires a 50 percent cost share from the university, and its partners are giving $2.1 million for the initial year.

Issa Batarseh, the UCF director of the Florida Power Electronics Center and an electrical engineering professor, said such projects do tend to be costly.

“I trust the team to have done a thorough and technically sound review process to make sure the money is well invested,” Batarseh said. “In general, such projects, since they require large number of partnership participation, tend to be costly, and if successful they will bring back the invested amounts many folds, hopefully.”

Tatari is an assistant professor of construction engineering at UCF and the co-principal investigator in the team.

He said part of the money would be used on determining how they can make this technology cost efficient and quantify the cost of electric cars and the highway electrification system.

With a large lump sum of money invested into a research team, Tatari believes Block has combined a great team that will help find valuable information about electrical vehicles.

“The team is great together with the new ideas and interdisciplinary approach of the Department of Transportation,” Tatari said. “UCF will be key for the future of transport of electrification because Orlando has a lot of electric vehicle projects and the team we established can lead for this future.”

The basic concept is not to create a smart grid but to meet the future transportation system challenges by a strong interdisciplinary university team representative of the United States, Block said.

The project has eight tasks that will be covered under the provided grant. They are: Siting of EV Charging Stations, Design Charging Station Hardware and Data Acquisition System, Install Hardware at EV Sites, Collect and Analyze Site Data, EV Data Assessment, Analyze and Model Electric Transportation Systems, Technology Transfer and Education and Training.

From designing charging station hardware to collecting and analyzing site data, the team will then collaborate all their research to educate students and society.

“If you envision in the future that you are going to have large numbers of electric vehicles in your transportation network,” Block said. “Whether they be cars, buses or trolleys, everything applies. For example, car systems will be electrically driven and what’s going to happen over time are issues with charging the vehicle.”

Currently, there are systems where the car can be parked over a device and is charged.

However, the team’s motive is to find a way to charge the electric vehicle while it is in motion, though this is still on the drawing board.

Presently, there is no permanent decision as to how many new electrical charging stations will be on campus.

“The idea of a university creating a station is like walking on eggs,” Block said. “We are not in the business of selling electricity or serving cars. We want a private industry to do these things. We conduct the research so that these complex systems operate efficiently and without problems.”

If the utility company has a smart grid, it could then use the car as a means of sending electricity to the grid, Block said, as opposed to only taking it out.

Whether better batteries are developed or current batteries are charged more frequently, there is still a need for a smart mechanism, Block said.

“When you get to this smart grid, you are actually sending electrons back to the utility company. This is what the future will look like. You will have the ability in the vehicles," Block said.

With an interdisciplinary approach to investigating the effects if all cars were electric, the team will also be investigating what the holistic impact will be.

“If all the cars we have run on electric, will there be an overload on the electrical infrastructure? One way this could be solved is to see the battery storing the electrical energy during the day, which helps the grid become more stable,” Tatari said.

The cars themselves will be helping the electric grid by using the battery during the day to store the energy. And at night, stabilizing the energy.

Implementing the $9 million into researching electrical vehicles at UCF seems to be the right road for researchers to take, Batarseh said.

“Smart cities will be the way of the future,” Batarseh said. “We have only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to smart-grid deployment. The sooner we start, the sooner we will become the technology innovation leaders, resulting in strong economy leaders.”

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