An Electrifying Idea For Roads

An Electrifying Idea For Roads

Companies such as Wave and Magment offer a variety of approaches for charging vehicles without plugs while they're being stored or even used, but costs stand in the way of broader adoption.

Wave

Starting this summer, the public buses in the Oberhaching suburb of Munich, Germany, won’t have to be plugged in to charge overnight anymore. Stefan Schelle, the mayor of Oberhaching, is taking advantage of the fact that an innovative startup has its offices in his community: Magment, short for “magnetizing cement,” will install its underground charging pad in the coming months. As soon as that happens, the buses will charge while they wait at the city’s main station or while stored at their overnight quarters.

In his light-filled office, Magment’s co-founder and CEO, Mauricio Esguerra, demonstrates how the new technology works: The lights on his black model car only flash when he puts the miniature Porsche directly atop the induction plate. “This works just like when you charge your iPhone on its charging pad or heat a pot on an induction range. People don’t have to be afraid of magnetic fields or anything like that,” says the 60-year-old Colombia-born entrepreneur. “The induction only gets activated when the storage battery is placed directly on top.


Patented by Esguerra, the “magnetizing concrete” is able to target the charge quite precisely. The batteries will be mounted in a box underneath the vehicles such as the retrofitted public buses. “Look, here’s one passing by,” says Esguerra, pointing out the window as a blue city bus rides past his office.

An invention finds its purpose

Esguerra grew up in Bogotá, studied physics at the Technical University Munich where he fell in love with a German woman, and started a family in her home country. For 15 years, he developed magnetic products, including the magnetizing cement, for Siemens, Europe’s largest industrial manufacturing company. The patent belonged to Siemens, of course. “But there were hardly any electric vehicles yet,” Esguerra says, “and Siemens didn’t quite know what to do with this invention.”

Esguerra changed companies a few times but, in 2015, he got an offer from Siemens. The patent for the magnetizing cement was expiring and Siemens wasn’t interested in keeping it. Would he, as the inventor, want it back? “I did not hesitate a second,” Esguerra remembers with a smile. “I’m a magnetician at heart.” That same year, he founded Magment to finally make use of the technology he created 20 years ago.

To demonstrate how his cement is made, he opens the lid of a plastic bucket filled with cement powder. Mixed in are fingernail-sized black pieces, so-called ferrites, mainly consisting of three ceramic oxides: iron, nickel and zinc. Conventionally, they are used in electronics such as cell phones, computers and cables. Molded in concrete, ferrites create a magnetic field that can transport charge to a vehicle, potentially eliminating range anxiety for EV drivers.

Molded in concrete, ferrites create a magnetic field that can transport charge to a vehicle, potentially eliminating range anxiety for EV drivers.

Magment

“Ferrites have extremely high rejection rates,” Esguerra adds. “It’s comparable to other ceramics: As soon as there is a small tear or crack, the material is rejected. We are talking about a rejection pile of 500,000 tons per year worldwide. There are mountains of unused materials.”

Exactly this fact was the starting point of his research at Siemens: “What can we do with this energy-intensive material? Back then, it was crushed up and mixed into the cement for building streets, without adding any function.” Today, too, the Magment material can simply be mixed with the conventional material and equipment of the cement industry. “We take advantage of the fact that we don’t have to build factories and don’t have high transportation costs."

In addition to saving resources, recycled ferrite also makes concrete more durable.

No plugs, no charging breaks

A young intern in the office next door winds cables around a new coil. These coils will later be lowered underground in a box, connected to the grid and encased in magnetizing concrete. The recipient box looks similar; it’s another coil but smaller, and it will be mounted underneath the carriage of the vehicle. For a car, the battery box would be 25 by 25 centimeters (about 10 inches), for a scooter five by five centimeters (about two inches).

Esguerra pushes an electric scooter into a cemented scooter rack next to his office. The charging pad is invisible. A faint beep is the only sign that it has started charging. “Childs play!” Esguerra says. “Even when someone puts in the scooter a little crooked, the charge still works. Our efficiency rate is up to 96 percent.” From this summer on, hotel chains in Munich will try out this system with their rental scooters, at a price of about 500 Euros per charging station.

Compared to plug-in charging, Magment’s benefits include smaller batteries that charge slower and, therefore, gentler, so they may last longer. Nobody needs to plug in the vehicles manually anymore. “Personally, I’ve had an EV for six years,” Esguerra says, “and how often does it happen that I forgot to plug it in overnight and then start out with a low charge in the morning? Once people get used to the invisible charging system, it will become the norm.“

There are also downsides: Most car companies aren’t ready for the new technology. Hyundai is the first carmaker that announced plans to equip some new models with inductive charging capability. “How many cars are electrified worldwide?” Esguerra asks and gives the answer himself: “One percent. And how many forklifts are electrified? More than 70 percent!” Therefore, Magment focuses on charging forklifts, e-scooters and buses.

Magment has focused most of its efforts on charging forklifts and other vehicle types that are entirely or predominantly electric, unlike cars.

Magment

On the morning of my visit to Esguerra’s office, a developer of the world’s third-biggest forklift manufacturer is there to inspect how the technology works on the ground. In the basement, a Magment engineer drives an electric forklift over a testbed with invisible charging coils, turning on the green charging light. Esguerra opens the interior of the forklift and points out the two batteries. “With our system, the forklift will only need one battery.” The savings, about 7,000 Euro per forklift, will pay for the installation of Magment’s charging system in warehouses, Esguerra calculates. “Less personnel and no unnecessary wait times for charging will lead to further savings,” he says.

To implement the new technology as efficiently as possible, Magment engineers began recording the transport routes of forklifts in warehouses. “It looks like spaghetti diagrams,” Esguerra explains. “Soon you get the areas where the forklifts pass or wait most frequently. This is where you install the chargers underground.” The forklifts will charge while in use, without having to pause for charging breaks. The method could also work for robots, for instance, in warehouses and distribution centers.

Roads of the future could be electric

Potential disadvantages might become apparent once the technology is more broadly in use. Therefore investors were initially reluctant, Esguerra admits. “Some are eager to be the first but most prefer to wait until the technology has been extensively used in real life.”

A clear hurdle today is that electrifying entire freeways with induction coils would cost at least 1 to 1.5 million Euros per kilometer. The German Department for Transportation even calculates overall costs of 14 to 47 million Euros per kilometer. So, the technology may only make sense for areas where vehicles pass or dwell the longest, like the Oberhaching train station or a busy interstate toll booth.

And yet, Magment is ramping up to compete with other companies that build larger inductive charging pads. The company just finished the first 20 meters of a testbed in Indiana, in partnership with the Purdue University and the Indiana Department of Transportation. Magment is poised to build “the world’s first contactless wireless-charging concrete pavement highway segment,” Purdue University announced.

The project, part of Purdue’s ASPIRE (Advancing Sustainability through Powered Infrastructure for Roadway Electrification) program, is financed by the National Science Foundation. “Indiana is known as the Crossroads of America, and we’re committed to fortifying our position as a transportation leader by innovating to support the emerging vehicle technology,” Governor Eric J. Holcomb said. If testing is successful, including the concrete’s capacity to charge heavy trucks operating at higher power (200 kilowatts and above), Indiana plans to identify a highway segment to install Magment’s charging pads. The earliest would be 2023 at best.

In the meantime, buses in the Californian Antelope Valley, trams at Hollywood's Universal Studios and transit buses in Tampa, Florida, are already charging with inductive technology developed by Wave, a company spun out of Utah State University. In Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced plans to build a test route for vehicles to charge while driving, in collaboration with the Israel-based company Electreon,and this year contracted to build the first road-based charging system in the U.S. The state is providing support through an innovative grant program.

Costs remain one of the biggest obstacles, but Esguerra’s vision includes the potential that toll roads could charge a premium for inductive charging capabilities. “And in reverse, a driver who has too much energy could feed his surplus into the grid while driving,” Esguerra dreams.

Meanwhile, Wave’s upcoming big projects are moving trucks along a route in Southern California and running a UPS route between Seattle and Portland. Wave CTO Michael Masquelier describes the inductive power transfer his company champions as “similar to a tuning fork. By vibrating that fork, you sent energy through the air and it is received by another tuning fork across the room. So it’s similar to that, but it’s magnetic energy versus sound energy.”

He hopes to partner with Magment, saying that “the magnetizing cement makes installation easier and improves the energy efficiency.” More research is needed to evaluate which company’s technology will prove to be the most efficient, practical, and cost-effective.

Esguerra’s vision includes the potential that toll roads could charge a premium for inductive charging capabilities. “And in reverse, a driver who has too much energy could feed his surplus into the grid while driving,” Esguerra dreams.

The future will soon arrive in the idyllic town of Bad Staffelstein, a quaint tourist destination in the Upper Franconia region of Germany. Visitors will be taken to and from the main station and the popular thermal bath by driverless shuttles. Together with the University of Wuppertal, the regional government of Upper Franconia wants to turn its district into “the center of autonomous driving.” Magment is about to install inductive charging pads at the shuttle stations and the thermal bath, eliminating the need for the shuttles to stop for charging times. No more drivers, no cable, no range anxiety. Masquelier believes that “wireless and autonomous driving go hand in hand.” Science fiction? It will become science reality in spring 2023.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story erroneously mentioned that Electreon required overhead cables.

Michaela Haas
Michaela Haas, PhD, is an award-winning reporter and author, most recently of Bouncing Forward: The Art and Science of Cultivating Resilience (Atria). Her work has been published in the New York Times, Mother Jones, the Huffington Post, and numerous other media. Find her at www.MichaelaHaas.com and Twitter @MichaelaHaas!
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