The future of EV Technology: a research Q&A with Dr. Ayman EL-Refaie

Electric vehicles are becoming a regular sight on highways around the U.S. and electrification is being adopted in more industries and communities every year, but there are still opportunities for the technology to become more accessible, sustainable and secure. Engineers at Marquette are working to solve problems to superpower electrification, broaden its use to more applications and limit its dependence on unsustainable materials in short supply.

Dr. Ayman EL-Refaie is driving these efforts at Marquette, making Milwaukee a major contributor to the planet’s electric future. As the Thomas and Suzanna M. Werner Endowed Chair in Secure and Renewable Energy Systems and professor of electrical and computer engineering in the Opus College of Engineering, EL-Refaie is currently leading two major Department of Energy grants that will shape the future of electric vehicles.

In one project, EL-Refaie and his collaborators are developing an electric drivetrain to power aerospace propulsion for hybrid and electric planes. Electric airplanes are not yet widespread, but a lighter weight motor with enough power for air travel could be a gamechanger for airlines, supply chain, travelers and the environment. Partners include National Renewable Energy Lab, Florida State University and Raytheon Technologies Research Center.

In another project, EL-Refaie is helping to reduce dependance on heavy rare-earth materials for electric vehicles – a material in limited supply that is largely produced by China. Reducing or eliminating this dependence would reshape how EVs are manufactured and alleviate potential global monopolies over the technology. Partners include Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, General Motors, Niron Magnetics and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

In a Q&A, Dr. EL-Refaie discusses the latest developments in his work and what he sees for 2024 and beyond.

You and your collaborators have been working on these problems for a few years. Can you share where you are in the process and any milestones thus far?

We are currently in phase 2 of our Department of Energy project focused on electric drivetrains for aerospace propulsion. We have completed our conceptual design and initial testing and are now building a full scale 250 kW system that we aim to test in the summer of 2024. Our work has had positive reviews from the Department of Energy, and we are excited to be moving beyond our initial design stage.

We are also making important progress in our Department of Energy project focused on developing low-cost electric drivetrains that eliminate heavy rare material. Our teams are now focused on building a full-scale motor prototype. This will be an intermediate prototype until we can incorporate Iron Nitride (FeN) magnets developed by our industry partner, Niron Magnetics in Minneapolis. Meanwhile, our collaborators at Virginia Tech will also be building a full-scale prototype of the novel low-cost power inverter.

We are eager to keep advancing this technology until it can be a reality for the transportation industry, and ultimately, the public.

What trends are you seeing in the United States and globally related to electrification?

The interest and growth in the electrification space is as high as ever and I expect this to continue for the foreseeable future. The government continues to make significant investments in this space, and we are seeing a high level of activity and innovation within both industry and academia. It is great for Marquette to be at the cutting-edge of this technology, and we are joined by great collaborators. It is now a major area of attention across disciplines, and there are numerous applications for electrification that are just now being explored.

As your projects continue and the field evolves, what could an average citizen expect to change in their day-to-day lives?

Renewable energy will continue to penetrate the residential and commercial sectors, and I expect consumers will begin to have greater understanding of the technology beyond its novelty. We will see more electric vehicles on the road and more infrastructure to support charging and maintenance.

I also expect we will see more adoption of hybrid and electric planes. Hybrid planes could change the consumer experience with both airlines and airport infrastructure, and fully electric planes are more likely to be used in shorter distance travel or even uncrewed aircraft.

More and more of your neighbors will be considering an EV, and it won’t just be engineers and technologists who will be in-the-know about them.

What motivates you to lead this work and drive this technology forward?

The technology opportunity here is incredible. The performance targets on these proposed technologies could double or triple what is considered “state of the art” today. For any researcher, this is very challenging but also very exciting as it opens the doors to push the limits and develop very different and novel technologies. As an engineer and a problem-solver, it is impossible not to be excited about this work every step of the way.

As you look ahead to 2024 and beyond, what are the problems, opportunities or new factors that will be at play?

The technology is advancing rapidly with a bright future, but it depends on consistent support from the government. It also relies on continued public support and industry’s commitment to commercialize the new developed technologies. The goal is to get this technology out of the lab, and I am grateful to the Department of Energy, our collaborators, and the wider field for sharing that vision.