Powerful Data: Smart Sensors to Improve EV Efficiency0

Ysabel Yates | Tue Aug 14 2012

Batteries power electric vehicles but they also limit EVs — they’re heavy, expensive and only store enough power to travel about a hundred miles. But creating a more energy-efficient battery is harder than it seems. That’s why researchers from GE Global Research are pioneering technology to get the answers straight from the source.

A new class of smart battery sensors will use real-time analytics to determine the battery’s state of health to preserve power and better inform drivers about range. Researchers are hoping this will ultimately help extend battery life and drive better performance in EVs.

Dr. Aaron Knobloch, principal investigator and mechanical engineer at GE Global Research, says a greater understanding of the battery’s health and state of charge is a key to improving energy efficiency. “Once we understand battery health in real time, we can control the battery to improve performance,” he says. “Or conversely, we’ll also know when to pull back to get more life.”

On current sensing systems, the location of sensors and the data they collect are often at odds. For example, temperature measurements are often made in locations far from the battery’s hottest point near the exterior of the pack, says Knobloch. GE will employ smaller, ultrathin sensors that can be located near the hottest regions of the cell .

Data from the sensors could improve the performance, increase the amount of power, or lengthen the life of the battery.

Through integrating a series of tiny sensors, the system will be able to take more accurate measurements, as well as receive information on previously unmeasurable vital signs, such as pressure.

“This new system allows more observability about what is going on in the cell,” says Knobloch. “Data from the sensors could improve the performance, increase the amount of power, or lengthen the life of the battery.”

The U.S. government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) is providing $3.1 million to fund the three year project. The agency, part of the Department of Energy and modeled after DARPA, funds long-term studies on transformational technology in energy innovation.

At the conclusion of the three-year study, Ford will test the prototype sensors in one of its EV vehicles.

Professors from the University of Michigan’s Automotive Research Center are also participating in the research by designing battery models and algorithms which use the sensor data.

The new battery sensing system is just one way big data is leading to greater energy efficiency. The system is part of GE’s development of the “Industrial Internet”, an initiative to gather data from industrial equipment – ranging from batteries to gas turbines – to analyze energy use and improve performance.

Top image: A prototype of the ultrathin, smart EV sensor. Courtesy Dr. Aaron Knobloch.