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Hackaday Links: July 14, 2024

We’ve been going on at length in this space about the death spiral that AM radio seems to be in, particularly in the automotive setting. Car makers have begun the process of phasing AM out of their infotainment systems, ostensibly due to its essential incompatibility with the electronics in newer vehicles, especially EVs. That argument always seemed a little specious to us, since the US has an entire bureaucracy dedicated to making sure everyone works and plays well with each other on the electromagnetic spectrum. The effort to drop AM resulted in pushback from US lawmakers, who threatened legislation to ensure every vehicle has the ability to receive AM broadcasts, on the grounds of its utility in a crisis and that we’ve spent billions ensuring that 80% of the population is within range of an AM station.

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Making EV Motors, And Breaking Up With Rare Earth Elements

Rare earth elements are used to produce magnets with very high strength that also strongly resist demagnetization, their performance is key to modern motors such as those in electric vehicles (EVs). The stronger the magnets, the lighter and more efficient a motor can be. So what exactly does it take to break up with rare earths?

Rare earth elements (REEs) are actually abundant in the Earth’s crust, technically speaking. The problem is they are found in very low concentrations, and inconveniently mixed with other elements when found. Huge amounts of ore are required to extract useful quantities, which requires substantial industrial processing. The processes involved are ecologically harmful and result in large amounts of toxic waste.

Moving away from rare earth magnets in EV motors would bring a lot of benefits, but poses challenges. There are two basic approaches: optimize a motor for non-rare-earth magnets (such as iron nitrides), or do away with permanent magnets entirely in favor of electromagnets (pictured above). There are significant engineering challenges to both approaches, and it’s difficult to say which will be best in the end. But research and prototypes are making it increasingly clear that effective REE-free motors are perfectly feasible. Breaking up with REEs and their toxic heritage would be much easier when their main benefit — technological performance — gets taken off the table as a unique advantage.

Nine men of various ages and ethnicities stand in a very clean laboratory space. A number of large white cabinets with displays are on the left behind some white boards and there are wireless charging coils on a dark tablecloth in the foreground. In the back of the lab is a white Porsche Taycan.

Polyphase Wireless EV Fast Charging Moves Forward

While EV charging isn’t that tedious with a cable, for quick trips, being able to just park and have your car automatically charge would be more convenient. Researchers from Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL) and VW have moved high-speed wireless EV charging one step closer to reality.

We’ve seen fast wireless EV chargers before, but what sets this system apart is the coil size (~0.2 m2 vs 2.0 m2) and the fact it was demonstrated on a functioning EV where previous attempts have been on the bench. According to the researchers, this was the first wireless transfer to a light duty vehicle at 270 kW. Industry standards currently only cover systems up to 20 kW.

The system uses a pair of polyphase electromagnetic coupling coils about 50 cm (19″) wide to transfer the power over a gap of approximately 13 cm (5″). Efficiency is stated at 95%, and that 270 kW would get most EVs capable of those charge rates a 50% bump in charge over ten minutes (assuming you’re in the lower part of your battery capacity where full speeds are available).

We’ve seen some in-road prototypes of wireless charging as well as some other interesting en route chargers like pantographs and slot car roads. We’ve got you covered if you’re wondering what the deal is with all those different plugs that EVs have too.

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Hackaday Links: June 9, 2024

We’ve been harping a lot lately about the effort by carmakers to kill off AM radio, ostensibly because making EVs that don’t emit enough electromagnetic interference to swamp broadcast signals is a practical impossibility. In the US, push-back from lawmakers — no doubt spurred by radio industry lobbyists — has put the brakes on the move a bit, on the understandable grounds that an entire emergency communication system largely centered around AM radio has been in place for the last seven decades or so. Not so in Japan, though, as thirteen of the nation’s 47 broadcasters have voluntarily shut down their AM transmitters in what’s billed as an “impact study” by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. The request for the study actually came from the broadcasters, with one being quoted in a hearing on the matter as “hop[ing] that AM broadcasting will be promptly discontinued.” So the writing is apparently on the wall for AM radio in Japan.

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Reverse Engineering Keeps Early Ford EVs Rolling

With all the EV hype in the air, you’d be forgiven for thinking electric vehicles are something new. But of course, EVs go way, way back, to the early 19th century by some reckonings. More recently but still pretty old-school were Ford’s Think line of NEVs, or neighborhood electric vehicles. These were commercially available in the early 2000s, and something like 7,200 of the slightly souped-up golf carts made it into retirement communities and gated neighborhoods.

But as Think aficionado [Hagan Walker] relates, the Achille’s heel of these quirky EVs was its instrument cluster, which had a nasty habit of going bad and taking the whole vehicle down with it, sometimes in flames. So he undertook the effort of completely reverse engineering the original cluster, with the goal of building a plug-in replacement.

The reverse engineering effort itself is pretty interesting, and worth a watch. The microcontroller seems to be the primary point of failure on the cluster, probably getting fried by some stray transients. Luckily, the microcontroller is still available, and swapping it out is pretty easy thanks to chunky early-2000s SMD components. Programming the MCU, however, is a little tricky. [Hagan] extracted the code from a working cluster and created a hex file, making it easy to flash the new MCU. He has a bunch of other videos, too, covering everything from basic diagnostics to lithium battery swaps for the original golf cart batteries that powered the vehicle.

True, there weren’t many of these EVs made, and fewer still are on the road today. But they’re not without their charm, and keeping the ones that are still around from becoming lawn ornaments — or worse — seems like a noble effort.

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A finger points at a stack of yellow plastic plates sandwiched together like on a bookshelf. A grey metal rectangle holds the top together and black plastic sticks off to the left. The top of the pack has copper and nickel (or some other silver-colored metal) tabs pointing up out of the assembly.

Tearing Into A Sparky Sandwich

We’re still in the early days of modern EV infrastructure, so minor issues can lead to a full high voltage pack replacement given the lack of high voltage-trained mechanics. [Ed’s Garage] was able to source a Spark EV battery pack that had succumbed to a single bad cell and takes us along for the disassembly of the faulty module.

The Spark EV was the predecessor to the more well-known Chevy Bolt, so its nearly ten year old systems might not reflect the state-of-the-art in EV batteries, but they are certainly more modern than the battery in your great-grandmother’s Baker Electric. The Li-ion polymer pouch cells are sandwiched together with cooling and shock absorbing panels to keep the cells healthy and happy, at least in theory.

In a previous video, [Ed’s Garage] takes apart the full pack and shows how the last 2P16S module has assumed a darker color on its yellow plastic, seeming to indicate that it wasn’t receiving sufficient cooling during its life in the car. It would seem that the cooling plates inside the module weren’t quite up to the task. These cells are destined for other projects, but it doesn’t seem like this particular type of battery module would be too difficult to reassemble and put back in a car as long as you could get the right torque settings for the compression bolts.

If you’re looking for other EV teardowns, might we suggest this Tesla Model S pack or one from a passively-cooled Nissan Leaf?

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Two researchers, a white woman and dark-skinned man look at a large monitor with a crystal structure displayed in red and white blocks.

AI On The Hunt For Better Batteries

While certain dystopian visions of the future have humans power the grid for AIs, Microsoft and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) set a machine learning system on the path of better solid state batteries instead.

Solid state batteries are the current darlings of battery research, promising a step-change in packaging size and safety among other advantages. While they have been working in the lab for some time now, we’re still yet to see any large-scale commercialization that could shake up the consumer electronics and electric vehicle spaces.

With a starting set of 32 million potential inorganic materials, the machine learning algorithm was able to select the 150 most promising candidates for further development in the lab. This smaller subset was then fed through a high-performance computing (HPC) algorithm to winnow the list down to 23. Eliminating previously explored compounds, the scientists were able to develop a promising Li/Na-ion solid state battery electrolyte that could reduce the needed Li in a battery by up to 70%.

For those of us who remember when energy materials research often consisted of digging through dusty old journal papers to find inorganic compounds of interest, this is a particularly exciting advancement. A couple more places technology can help in the sciences are robots doing the work in the lab or on the surgery table.

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