Men of Steel

Materials development from Iowa State University, DOE

At the Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory on the campus of Iowa State University, research and development for new materials directed at electric vehicles could very well help the electric motor industry as a whole.

A research team led by Jun Cui, an ISU associate professor of materials science and engineering and a senior scientist at the Ames Laboratory, is working to meet the demand for better materials and performance in electric motors. The team’s efforts will be aided by a $3.8 million grant from the DOE’s Vehicle Technologies Program, $2.8 million of which is designated for research at Iowa State.

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Jun Cui, associate professor of materials science and engineering at Iowa State University, and a senior scientist at the Ames Laboratory.—Photo by Christopher Gannon

“Typically, in the engineering world, when you have a problem like this, you look at the system, for example the motor design,” Cui told the Iowa State news service, but the issues that need addressing in this case are “material-related. It’s the demand for better materials.” Specifically, the team is looking at steel.

The research team is working to develop motors with a stator core manufactured in thin layers, or laminations, of a new electrical steel that would be an iron alloy containing 6.5 percent silicon. This silicon content is at least twice the amount used in most electric motors today, and it is intended to increase the electrical resistivity of the material by about 50 percent, thereby reducing eddy currents, heat, and power loss.

Most of the motors envisioned at the lab are would be running at much higher frequencies—jumping from today’s 60 hertz all the way to 400 hertz. However, the materials development would have its benefits for industrial electric motor efficiency, as well. Some of the same concepts could be applied.

The reduction of eddy currents, heat, and power loss can create a much higher motor power density, enabling design of smaller, lighter, and more powerful motors that could also be more cost effective. The main barrier facing Cui’s team right now is that the new steel is brittle and expensive to manufacture.

“It will crack if you drop it,” Cui said. The Iowa State-Ames Laboratory researchers will study and characterize different processes for making electrical steel so it’s more ductile and cheaper to make. Cui said the researchers are also committed to developing materials and motors that don’t depend on magnets made with rare-earth materials. That saves the motor industry from the rising costs of rare-earth materials. “The fundamental drive,” he says in regards to the project that also includes research partners from the United Technologies Research Center in East Hartford, Connecticut; and the University of Delaware in Newark, “is that we want more cost-effective and efficient electric motors. In about 10 years, if we’re lucky, we should see a real impact of this work.”

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