SALT LAKE CITY — A radically new way of moving people around on the University of Utah campus is about to become a reality, thanks to $2.7 million in start-up funds from the federal government.
A new transit route, which would be launched in fall 2012, through the heart of the campus will feature a full-size city bus, operated with an electric motor. But it will never need to be plugged in. Instead, it will get its energy wirelessly, thanks to a magnetic field emanating from the pavement.
If it works, it's a significant step toward the so-called "Highway of the Future," a concept in which electric vehicles could draw their energy from the pavement, without ever stopping to recharge. The electric bus approach is much more modest, relying on a single magnetic pad buried under asphalt. But it's already stirring national interest among transit experts.
The concept relies on breakthrough technology developed at Utah State University in Logan. The bus will be equipped with its electric charging system by WAVE, Inc. a Utah State University spin-off company.
"If it works well on the University of Utah campus," said WAVE CEO Wesley Smith, "our model will be to duplicate that to transit agencies around the country as well as campuses around the country."
If the technology ever returns a profit, USU would share in the revenue.
Magnetic induction technology itself has been used for years in a variety of products, including electric toothbrushes, cellphone chargers and power strips in factories. But experts at USU's Energy Dynamics Lab claim to have improved the technology to make it practical for charging vehicles, whether at a dead stop or in motion. They say the energy transfer is so efficient they can move electricity through the air across a 10-inch gap while losing only 2 percent of the energy.
The electric bus route on the U. campus will be anchored at the TRAX station near the Huntsman Center and the LDS Institute of Religion near the south perimeter of campus. The bus will haul students and faculty through the heart of the campus. It will reach as far as the engineering buildings on the north side. Each time it returns to the TRAX station, the bus will recharge its batteries quietly as it waits for passengers, simply by stopping above a magnetic pad buried in the pavement.
"The elegance of the system is that no bus driver is going to get out and plug in a bus charger for 45 seconds," Smith said. "But if all he has to do is drive over a pad and use a charger for 45 seconds, that's much more user friendly from the perspective of a bus operator."
The bus will use the first transit route to be built through the center of the University of Utah campus. Existing student shuttle buses circle the campus on perimeter streets.
When the new transit lane was proposed, some faculty objected to the idea of smelly, noisy buses driving past classroom buildings. The new concept seems to address that concern since a bus operating on magnetic induction technology would be extremely quiet and would have no tailpipe emissions.
Another advantage is that the bus will not need heavy, expensive batteries — one of the major factors that has dampened worldwide enthusiasm for electric vehicles. "We can reduce the battery size on this University of Utah route by 85 percent," Smith said.
The federal grant could help solve an old problem: existing transit routes circle around the University campus rather than go through its heart. "This campus was designed as a pedestrian campus, but it's 1,400 acres," said Alma Allred, the university's Director of Commuter Services. "In order to get people to leave their cars at home, they have to have a way to get around once they're here."
A challenge for planners is to design a bus route that will be safe. About half of the proposed transit lane is along existing sidewalks that are often heavily used by pedestrians, skateboarders and bicyclists.
"I think our big problems are people walking around with earphones in their ears and reading, rather than watching where they're going," Allred said. "And we'll have to address that."
A number of design ideas have been discussed. Allred predicts the bus will travel on a curbless roadway, rather than a sidewalk, with designated crossing areas. He said it may be textured with cobblestones to set it apart and discourage bicyclists. "I think the shuttle route will be safe," Allred said. "It won't go in unless we're certain it isn't a safety hazard."
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert watched a demonstration of the wireless charging technology this week at the Utah State University Energy Dynamics Lab. He was touring Northern Utah facilities that are developing new methods of achieving cleaner, sustainable energy.
"Well, I think what I'm learning here," the governor said, "is the important role that our universities play with research and development that then translates into private sector job development."
Backers of USU's magnetic induction approach say there's no technological reason it couldn't be used for the so-called "Highway of the Future." Magnetic induction pads placed under streets and highways could charge vehicles on the go, without stopping.
"The ultimate vision is that you would convert all of your internal combustion engines in a city to electric vehicles and they would charge as they were in motion," Smith said.
If the system works here, it could see widespread use. WAVE is already discussing similar systems with five major transit agencies around the country. And there's also talk of a trolley system in Salt Lake City that would run wirelessly.