1. Business

New heat pump could make electric cars cheaper to operate and boost sales

Published Mar. 10, 2012

WASHINGTON — As part of his plan to get 1 million electric cars on the road by 2015, President Barack Obama wants Congress to give buyers a tax credit of up to $10,000 next year.

Currently, the maximum is $7,500, and some Republicans scoff at the credit, calling it a subsidy for the wealthy, noting that the average yearly income of a Chevrolet Volt electric car owner is $170,000.

But engineers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., are conducting research that could go a long way toward making the cars more affordable — not necessarily to buy, but to operate. And that could ultimately make the cars more popular with the public and help achieve the president's target.

While internal combustion engines generate a lot of heat, making it easy to heat the passenger cabin in winter, electric vehicles produce very little excess heat. As a result, providing electricity for the same amount of heat can reduce their driving range by up to 40 percent.

The researchers want to create a new, 5-pound molecular heat pump, the size of a 2-liter bottle, that would handle both heating and cooling and allow the cars to travel longer distances before they'd need to be plugged in again.

The team, which includes chemists from the University of South Florida, won a grant of $803,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy for its pioneering work. Funding began on Dec. 1.

The science is complicated, but the basic idea is straightforward: Instead of using a conventional heat pump to control heating and air conditioning, the cars would be heated and cooled with a new class of nanomaterial — or an "electrical metal organic framework" — that responds to applied electricity to get the job done. And the new heat pumps would be much lighter, compact and efficient.

"The vehicle is going to be more attractive because it's going to be able to travel longer distances on the same charge you're putting in overnight," said Pete McGrail of Pasco, Wash., a laboratory fellow and engineer who has worked at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for 29 years. "So it's going to make it more marketable, more attractive, and it's going to take less energy."