January 14, 2009

Ahead of the Electric Car Curve

Technology developed at Tufts a decade ago to increase hybrid vehicle battery life is now licensed for commercial production

The technology harnesses energy from shock absorbers to create electric power. Photo: iStockphoto

More than a decade ago, a Tufts engineering professor began thinking about how energy already being produced by a vehicle could somehow be used again. A shock absorber, he realized, does its job well by absorbing the up and down motion of a car, making for a smoother ride. But what if the energy produced by that motion could be harnessed?

Ronald Goldner, who retired from the School of Engineering in 2005 after 40 years at Tufts, developed his idea in the 1990s and brought it to the Office for Technology and Industry Collaboration at Tufts, which successfully applied for a patent on the technology. But it was impossible to find investors or commercial partners to develop the concept at the time.

Since then, oil prices have soared, and the threat of climate change has become more widely recognized. Those were some of the factors that led Electric Truck LLC of Greenwich, Conn., to apply for the rights to commercialize Goldner’s technology. Goldner developed the idea along with Peter Zerigian, a retired researcher at the School of Engineering.

The technology is an electromagnetic linear generator, which converts energy that would otherwise be dissipated into electrical energy that can charge a vehicle’s battery while it is being driven. It could potentially increase gas mileage or total driving range by 20 to 70 percent in hybrid cars such as the Honda Civic, Ford Escape and Toyota Prius, as well as the Tesla Motors and Phoenix Motorcars electric vehicles.

The technology employs the weight of a vehicle for energy recovery, and it is thought that vehicles such as SUVs, small trucks and school buses could one day be able to run on batteries or electricity.

Goldner, a professor of electrical and computer engineering emeritus, invented other technologies that the university is trying to commercialize, all in the field of renewable energy and energy conservation.

Tufts recently received patents for two more of Goldner’s ideas. One is for improvements to so-called “smart” windows that would more efficiently transmit or reflect energy. Smart windows can be made to go darker or lighter, depending on sunlight, just as some eyeglasses do. Goldner’s idea would allow users to more finely tune their windows.

A second patent is for new technology that would allow a thin-film battery to replace the current batteries used in everything from cell phones to laptops to electric vehicles.

“In many respects, Ron Goldner was truly ahead of his time,” says Martin Son, associate director of the Tufts Office for Technology and Industry Collaboration.

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