Open Source High Power EV Motor Controller

For anyone with interest in electric vehicles, especially drives and control systems for EV’s, the Endless-Sphere forum is the place to frequent. It’s full of some amazing projects covering electric skateboards to cars and everything in between. [Marcos Chaparro] recently posted details of his controller project — the VESC-controller, an open source controller capable of driving motors up to 200 hp.

[Marcos]’s controller is a fork of the VESC by [Benjamin Vedder] who has an almost cult following among the forum for “creating something that all DIY electric skateboard builders have been longing for, an open source, highly programmable, high voltage, reliable speed controller to use in DIY eboard projects”. We’ve covered several VESC projects here at Hackaday.

While [Vedder]’s controller is aimed at low power applications such as skate board motors, [Marcos]’s version amps it up several notches. It uses 600 V 600 A IGBT modules and 460 A current sensors capable of powering BLDC motors up to 150 kW. Since the control logic is seperated from the gate drivers and IGBT’s, it’s possible to adapt it for high power applications. All design files are available on the Github repository. The feature list of this amazing build is so long, it’s best to head over to the forum to check out the nitty-gritty details. And [Marcos] is already thinking about removing all the analog sensing in favour of using voltage and current sensors with digital outputs for the next revision. He reckons using a FPGA plus flash memory can replace a big chunk of the analog parts from the bill of materials. This would eliminate tolerance, drift and noise issues associated with the analog parts.

[Marcos] is also working on refining a reference design for a power interface board that includes gate drivers, power mosfets, DC link and differential voltage/current sensing. Design files for this interface board are available from his GitHub repo too. According to [Marcos], with better sensors and a beefier power stage, the same control board should work for motors in excess of 500 hp. Check out the video after the break showing the VESC-controller being put through its paces for an initial trial.

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DIY Electric Beach Luge is a Thrill

[John Dingley] describes his Electric Beach Luge Project as an exciting mashup between “a downhill luge board, a kite surf buggy, a go-kart, and a Star Wars Land Speeder” and it’s fresh from a successful test run. What’s not to like? The DIY experimental vehicle was made to run on long, flat, firm stretches of sand while keeping the rider as close to the ground as possible. The Beach Luge is mainly intended to be ridden while lying on one’s back, luge-style, but it’s also possible to lay prone in the “Superman” position.

The whole unit was built from the ground up, but [John] points out that the design isn’t particularly complicated. There is no fancy self-balancing or suspension involved and steering is simple. A tube bender and a welder took care of making the frame. The rest is mainly used go-kart parts obtained cheaply from eBay, driven by a 500W 24V electric motor from an old Golf Kart. Like a luge sled, the goal is for the vehicle itself to interfere as little as possible between the user and the earth to make the experience as visceral as it can be.

You can see it in action in the two videos embedded below, but even more videos and some great pictures are available on the project’s page. [John] says it’s great fun to ride, but feels it could use twice as much power!

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Solar Powered Camper is a Magic Bus Indeed

There’s no doubt that Volkswagen’s offerings in the 1960s and early 1970s were the hippie cars of choice, with the most desirable models being from the Type 2 line, better known as the Microbus. And what could be even hippier than
converting a 1973 VW Microbus into a solar-electric camper?

For [Brett Belan] and his wife [Kira], their electric vehicle is about quality time with the family. And they’ll have plenty of time, given that it doesn’t exactly ooze performance like a Tesla. Then again, a Tesla would have a hard time toting the enormous 1.2 kW PV panel on its roof like this camper can, and would look even sillier with the panel jacked up to maximize its solar aspect. [Brett] uses the space created by the angled array to create extra sleeping space like the Westfalia, a pop-top VW camper. The PV array charges a bank of twelve lead-acid golf cart batteries which power an AC motor through a 500-amp controller. Interior amenities include a kitchenette, dining table, and seating that cost as much as the van before conversion. There’s no word on interior heat, but honestly, that never was VW’s strong suit — we speak from bitter, frostbitten experience here.

As for being practical transportation, that just depends on your definition of practical. Everything about this build says “labor of love,” and it’s hard to fault that. It’s also hard to fault [Brett]’s choice of platform; after all, vintage VWs are the most hackable of cars.

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Semisolid Lithium Ion Batteries Promise Better Cars, Solar

Lithium-ion batteries make possible smaller and lighter electronics. Unfortunately, they are also costly to produce. In a conventional lithium-ion battery, many thin layers create the finished product much like filo dough in baklava. A startup company called 24M thinks they have the answer to making less expensive lithium-ion batteries: a semisolid electrode made by mixing powders and liquid to form an electrolyte goo.

Not only will the batteries be cheaper and faster to create, but the cost of the factory will be less. Currently, 24M has a pilot manufacturing line, but by 2020 they expect to scale to produce batteries that cost less than $100 per kilowatt hour (today’s costs are about $200 to $250 for conventional batteries). Under $100, the batteries become competitive with the cost of internal combustion engines, according to the article.

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EV History: The Lightning Precedes The Thunder

In 1988, a bunch of engineers from Hotzenwald, Germany, came together and decided that it is time for the future of mobility: A new, more modern and environmentally friendly car should put an end to fossils and emissions while still being fun to drive. “It should become a new kind of car. Smaller, lighter, cleaner – and more beautiful” is how future CEO Thomas Albiez described his mission. For the first time in automotive history, this series car would be designed as an all-electric vehicle from the start and set a new standard for mobility. The project was given the codename “Hotzenblitz” (“Hotzen Bolt”) to indicate how the idea came to them: Like a lightning bolt. The snarky regional term also came with a double meaning: Imaginary lightning bolts, used for insurance fraud.

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Hotzenblitz frame construction (origin unknown, image source)

Unnoticed by the rest of the world, they founded Hotzenblitz Mobile. Industrial Designer Harold Schurz was contracted to design the chassis for the Hotzenblitz, which was then modeled into a prototype chassis. The self-funded team moved fast. An external motorsports company helped to develop the tubular steel frame, and soon their vision took on shape. After the team had fitted a motor and transmission into the frame, CEO Thomas Albiez himself installed the traction battery and drive train. The team felt confident with the result, and in July 1990, during an open house day in the office, they somewhat spontaneously decided to call Green Tech entrepreneur and chocolate mogul Alfred Ritter.

Alfred Ritter had experienced financial losses after the Chernobyl Disaster. Many agricultural regions, including several hazelnut plantations that were vital to Alfred’s chocolate business, were irreversibly lost to the fallout contamination. It was then when he turned to the green energy business, founding the Paradigma group to manufacture solar collector systems and pellet heaters. When Thomas and the team called, Alfred jumped on the idea of an electric car. In the same year, Alfred Ritter and his sister Marli Hoppe-Ritter became shareholders in the company and helped to finance the future of the Hotzenblitz.

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Reverse Engineering A Nissan Leaf Battery Pack

Batteries wear out. If you are an electric vehicle enthusiast, it’s a certainty that at some time in your not-too-distant future there will be a point at which your vehicle’s batteries have reached the end of their lives and will need to be replaced. If you have bought a new electric vehicle the chances are that you will be signed up to a leasing deal with the manufacturer which will take care of this replacement, but if you have an older vehicle this is likely to be an expensive moment.

Fortunately there is a tempting solution. As an increasing number of electric vehicles from large manufacturers appear on our roads, a corresponding number of them have become available on the scrap market from accident damage. It is thus not impossible to secure a fairly new lithium-ion battery pack from a modern electric car, and for a significantly lower price than you would pay for new cells. As always though, there is a snag. Such packs are designed only for the cars they came with, and have proprietary connectors and protocols with which they communicate with their host vehicle. Fitting them to another car is thus not a task for the faint hearted.

Hackaday reader [Wolf] has an electric truck, a Solectria E10. It has a set of elderly lead-acid batteries and would benefit hugely from an upgrade to lithium-ion. He secured a battery pack from a 2013 Nissan Leaf electric car, and he set about reverse engineering its battery management system (BMS). The Solectria will use a different battery configuration from the Leaf, so while he would like to use the Leaf’s BMS, he has had to reverse engineer its protocols so that he can replace its Nissan microcontroller with one of his own.

His description of the reverse engineering process is lengthy and detailed, and with its many photos and videos is well worth a read. He employs some clever techniques, such as making his own hardware simulation of a Li-ion cell so that he can supply the BMS known values that he can then sniff from the serial data stream.

We’ve covered quite a few EV batteries here at Hackaday. Quite recently we even covered another truck conversion using Leaf batteries, and last year we featured a Leaf battery teardown. We’ve not restricted ourselves to Nissan though, for example here’s a similar process with a Tesla Model S pack.

Evolving our Ideas to Build Something That Matters

When Jeffrey Brian “JB” Straubel built his first electric car in 2000, a modified 1984 Porsche 944, powered by two beefy DC motors, he did it mostly for fun and out of his own curiosity for power electronics. At that time, “EV” was already a hype among tinkerers and makers, but Straubel certainly pushed the concept to the limit. He designed his own charger, motor controller, and cooling system, capable of an estimated 288 kW (368 hp) peak power output. 20 lead-acid batteries were connected in series to power the 240 V drive train. With a 30-40 mile range the build was not only road capable but also set a world record for EV drag racing.

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The “Electric Porsche 944” – by JB Straubel

The project was never meant to change the world, but with Tesla Motors, which Straubel co-founded only a few years later, the old Porsche 944 may have mattered way more than originally intended. The explosive growth between 2000 and 2010 in the laptop computer market has brought forth performance and affordable energy storage technology and made it available to other applications, such as traction batteries. However, why did energy storage have to take the detour through a bazillion laptop computers until it arrived at electro mobility?

 

You certainly won’t find that grail of engineering by just trying hard. Rather than feverishly hunting down the next big thing or that fix for the world’s big problems, we sometimes need to remind ourselves that even a small improvement, a new approach or just a fun build may be just the right ‘next step’. We may eventually build all the things and solve all the problems, but looking at the past, we tend to not do so by force. We are much better at evolving our ideas continuously over time. And each step on the way still matters. Let’s dig a bit deeper into this concept and see where it takes us.

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