As anyone who lives in a warm climate will tell you, air conditioning is a must in any car, electric or otherwise. But just as running the air conditioning system in a gasoline or diesel-powered car can reduce your car’s gas mileage, running the AC in an electric car can often have a dramatic effect on your car’s real-world range.
Since mass-produced electric cars like the Nissan LEAF and Chevrolet Volt launched in 2011, we’ve seen a variety of innovative ways that electric automakers have tried to make air conditioning systems more efficient, from the use of ultra-efficient heat pumps to specially-designed dual-zone climate control systems that can be selectively turned off to save energy.
But now a team of academics from the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and German Aerospace Centre (DLR) have successfully finished work on a new type of electric car motor which operates as not only a source of motive power but also keeps you cool too.
By combining the motor and air conditioning system into one unit, the researchers said they were not only able to save physical space within an electric car, but also help save power too.
That’s because the air compressor is able to tap excess energy from the car’s electric motor in a far more efficient manner than it would if it were a separate unit, making it possible to use kinetic energy from the car’s motion to run the air compressor on braking — a kind of regenerative braking-fed air conditioning, if you will.
The design, built jointly between NTU and DLR, is so unique that it has been awarded a Best Originality Award by the TECO Green Tech International Contest held in Taiwan, beating off nineteen other entries from universities like Boston University and UCLA.
While the combined electric motor and air conditioning unit won’t save a huge amount of energy by virtue of system efficiencies alone, the team behind the design say that when the space vacated by a traditional air compressor is filled with battery packs, the total savings could equate to a fifteen to twenty per cent increase in electric vehicle design.
“By integrating the refrigerant compressor directly into the electric motor, we save components, weight and cost. Simultaneously, the more regenerative braking part of the kinetic energy is passed directly to the refrigerant compressor and thus the efficiency is further increased,” said Dr. Michael Schier from DLR’s Institute of Vehicle Concepts.
“For electric vehicles, the air conditioning uses a lot of electrical energy, thereby cutting down the range of electric cars by up to 50 per cent. To increase the energy efficiency and therefore the range of electric cars, the thermal management and the integration of additional functions into existing powertrain components play a major role.”
If the idea of building integrated components into an electric motor sounds familiar, you’d be right. Tesla Motors already uses an integrated motor design in its popular Model S electric car, housing the inverter electronics used to drive the motor itself behind the tiny yet powerful electric motor used to give the car its legendary performance.
Meanwhile, Nissan and Mitsubishi have both developed integrated Inverter motor electronics housed in the same unit, helping to cut down the space used by electric car components and most importantly, produce a more efficient and lightweight electric car.
As with any improvement in the laboratory, it’ll take a while before the 2-in-1 motor and air conditioner will make it into any production vehicles, but anything that can help us go further on a charge is, in our opinion, a great thing.
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