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MIT Researcher Analyzes New Role of Electric Motors in Cars, Robots, Microgrids, and Ships

Professor James Kirtley (Photo: David Sella)

Electric motors have existed since Thomas Davenport built the first functional model in 1834, and they play an important part in everyday life. Currently, diesel and gas engines are continually being replaced by electric motors, and hydraulix cylinders. Additionally, new designs are being optimized for use in robots and other technologies.

Something like 40 percent of electric power is used to drive motors, and that number will only grow. Electric motors are being used more widely in ships, airplanes, trains, and cars. We’re also seeing a lot more electric motors in robots.

James Kirtley, Professor, MIT's Research Laboratory of Electronics

The ongoing transition from gas to electric is chiefly driven by the demand for more efficient devices that function with cleaner energy sources. Nonetheless, electric motors also have a tendency to be more responsive, and are more versatile to new applications, particularly in smaller devices.

As one of the world’s top experts on electric motors, Kirtley’s philosophy is that one size cannot fit all. “If you take into account the specific application, you can build a motor that is far better adapted than a general purpose motor,” says Kirtley. “For example, I’m working with someone who is making robots for medical assist, and he needs motors with very special characteristics.”

Several of the latest types of electric motors are mostly much smaller and function on lesser power than in the past.

I started working with electric motors 40 years ago designing big nuclear generators with 20-foot long rotors that were 6 feet in diameter and could produce a gigawatt and a half of power. I’m now building motors on the order of 100 to 200 Watts for appliance motors, which are kinder and gentler to the system powering them. In the automotive industry, the average automobile has dozens of small motors for things like door locks, wiper blades, air conditioning, and seat positioners.

James Kirtley, Professor, MIT's Research Laboratory of Electronics

Even without the separate field of MEMS, which Kirtley is not directly involved in, electric motors are currently shrinking to as small as the 1 W devices used in cellphones. A range of innovative new compact motors are being designed all over MIT, says Kirtley, who highlights a remarkable variable reluctance motor for a prosthetic foot being built at MIT's Center for Art, Science and Technology.

Another source of innovation in electric motors is clean transportation. “In my lab we’re doing work with a small company in Cambridge that makes bicycle assist wheels,” says Kirtley. “The wheel stores some energy, and can react to pedaling forces to help it climb hills. These are entirely new applications.”

Improving Microgrids with Smart Motors

Kirtley’s initial involvement with power-plant generators led him to research electric power systems. In 2010, his research culminated with his Wiley-published book, “Electric Power Principles". Lately, he is focusing on the customer-end of the system, where he is discovering a role for electric motors in helping distribution systems adjust to intermittent, user-generated solar power.

Electric power distribution systems are being stretched by the growing use of distributed renewable generation, such as rooftop solar. Typically, electricity is transmitted from large power plants through extra high voltage wires, and the voltage is stepped down and delivered to customers. The problem with rooftop solar is that it looks to the power system like a reduction in load, but as solar cells become more widespread, homes will at times be able to produce more power than they’re consuming. So the power flows backward, which makes everything more complicated.

James Kirtley, Professor, MIT's Research Laboratory of Electronics

Utilities are now working on smart microgrids that can adjust to distributed, multidirectional power. The greater flexibility is possible due to smarter electronics and efficient, distributed battery storage. However, microgrids still have an issue with even short power outages, which at times can cause them to shut down.

“We’re thinking about the dynamics of motors connected to microgrids, and how you can improve their stability and make them work better,” Kirtley says. “We’re concerned about continuity of supply, which is especially important with microgrids supporting large server farms. You don’t want your system to be forced into an involuntary reboot simply because you had a glitch in the electric power supply. Electric motors can add more reliability.”

Electrifying the Cheetah Robot

A number of the latest innovations in electric motors can be found in robotics, which require smarter motors that can reliably supply variable levels of power on demand for brief periods. Electric motors can offer mobile robots with considerably longer battery life in comparison with traditional hydraulic systems.

“Hydraulics are controlled primarily through throttle valves, so a lot of energy is wasted pumping and controlling the hydraulic fluid,” says Kirtley.

Kirtley has been collaborating with Professor Jeffrey Lang to design customized electric motors for Department of Mechanical Engineering colleague Sangbae Kim’s robotic cheetah, a jumping, running, quadruped that has attracted widespread publicity recently. The new motor of the cheetah is not only more efficient, but also more powerful, although only at brief intervals.

A secondary advantage of electric motors is responsiveness and control. We can build a motor that can produce considerable torque in short spikes, even if we can’t necessarily produce the forces for a long period of time. It’s perhaps a little too powerful for the cheetah, which can now jump so high in the air, it probably wouldn’t survive the landing if they didn’t catch it.

James Kirtley, Professor, MIT's Research Laboratory of Electronics

Electric Motors Transform Ships

Most commercial ships today use diesel engines, while several naval vessels use gas turbine engines. However, shipping is rapidly leaning toward electric propulsion, motivated chiefly by efficiency, says Kirtley. Aside from nuclear-powered vessels, these tend to be hybrid systems, where gas or diesel generators drive an electric motor.

A traditional gear drive for ships has some very decided disadvantages. For example, most destroyers in the U.S. Navy have gearboxes with very precise machining requirements, and are therefore expensive. They also require a fixed gear ratio between the engine and the water, so the prime mover is not operating near its peak fuel efficiency. Because of that, much of commercial shipping, and virtually all cruise ships, are now moving to electric propulsion, and even the U.S. Navy is starting to use it for its latest destroyer.

James Kirtley, Professor, MIT's Research Laboratory of Electronics

The other issue with fuel-driven gear-drive engines is “the tyranny of the shaft line,” says Kirtley. “If you’re going to use a direct gear drive, the engine, gearbox, and propeller must line up very precisely, which often takes up valuable real estate within the body of the ship. With electric propulsion, we don’t have that problem. The engines can be placed anywhere where it’s convenient. In cruise ships, for example, the motors are place in a pod underneath the ship.”

Electric Cars: Adapting the Engine to the Road

The key difference between electric propulsion on ships vs. cars is associated to torque requirements, says Kirtley. “On a ship, top speed defines the torque requirement,” he explains. “Automobile propulsion occurs across a speed range of about 10 to 1, with an engine that idles at 600 rpm capable of redlining at about 6,000 rpm. The best motors for cars are those that are adaptable to a very wide speed range.”

The variable speeds used in a car need that “the gearbox adapt the engine to the road,” says Kirtley. “You can generate an electric motor that can propel an automobile without a gear shift.”

Kirtley had initially consulted with Tesla Motors on its electric cars, and both agree that “the induction motor is the best for electric automobiles,” says Kirtley. Several other electric car manufacturers are still using permanent magnet motors, which he says are inherently less efficient in the broad torque and speed range needed by car propulsion.

For any given electric motor there is a tradeoff between excitation — making the operating magnetic field within the machine — and reaction, providing current to push on that exciting field inside the machine. In a permanent magnet machine that field is constant and cannot be adjusted, so a machine that is turning very fast but making relatively little torque is dropping a lot of power in losses in the machine’s magnetic iron. In an induction motor you can back off on the excitation to provide torque at the energetically optimal fashion. You can improve the drive efficiency of a car over a complete drive cycle by as much of a factor of two in fewer losses.

James Kirtley, Professor, MIT's Research Laboratory of Electronics

Induction motors are not most favorable for all applications, however, which brings Kirtley back to his main thesis: “In the development of motors for modern applications, it is most important to understand the totality of operational requirements,” he says. “That is key to making electric motors that will accomplish what they do best: provide motion in a responsive and efficient fashion.”

James Kirtley - 1 Applications and Efficiency of the Electric Motor

MIT Industrial Liaison Program (ILP)/

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