WASHINGTON -- As part of his plan to get 1 million electric cars on the road by 2015, President Obama wants Congress to give buyers a tax credit of up to $10,000 next year.
But the battery-operated vehicles have one major disadvantage: They can be costly to heat.
Currently, the maximum tax credit is $7,500. Some Republicans scoff at the credit, calling it a subsidy for the wealthy, noting that the average yearly income of a Chevy Volt electric car owner is $170,000.
But engineers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland 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 make the cars more popular with the public and help achieve the president's target.
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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 to warm the passenger cabin 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 would 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 Department of Energy for its pioneering work. Funding began Dec. 1.
"We're really just barely under way," said Pete McGrail of Pasco, a laboratory fellow and engineer who has worked at PNNL for 29 years.
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" -- which 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," McGrail said. "So it's going to make it more marketable, more attractive, and it's going to take less energy."
Backers of the project say it offers other key advantages, such as helping decrease greenhouse gas emissions and reliance on foreign oil.
While former President Bill Clinton and Microsoft founder Bill Gates commanded the headlines when they spoke last week at the Energy Department's Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy innovation summit in National Harbor, Md., the PNNL researchers displayed their project in a booth.
The annual summit tries to gather the best minds in government, academia and business to advance energy technology. It also gives scientists a chance to mingle with investors who can help get new technology into the marketplace.
Praveen Thallapally, a PNNL senior research scientist who manned the booth, said that if the project is successful, it could reduce the costs of operating an electric car by as much as a third.
"That's what we are expecting," said Thallapally, who has worked at PNNL for five years.
McGrail said results would vary based on temperatures and driving conditions.
"Are there hills involved? How cold was it?" he asked. "If you left on a day in Minnesota when it was 10 below zero, it's going to take a lot more energy to heat the cabin than if you're talking about a mild spring day of 40 (degrees)."