Researchers at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) have developed an electric transport system where the vehicles get their power needs from cables underneath the surface of the road via non-contact magnetic charging. As well as potentially saving Koreans a lot of money by reducing crude oil imports, widespread adoption of the technology also offers the potential of improving air quality in currently polluted cities.

The drive towards adoption of the electric vehicle as a popular and viable means of transport is beginning to highlight a few potential road blocks which may not be enough to halt progress but may require some inventive thinking. Limitations on battery size and power, the issue of battery weight, the range of an electric vehicle between charges, how long it takes to recharge the batteries, and not forgetting the availability of charging points and who foots the bill - all currently hot topics in the world of electric vehicle creation.

There's also a resource issue waiting in the wings to raise its problematic head some time soon. As more vehicles become reliant on drawing their power from batteries, supplies of the compounds and metals on which they are based may become less and less readily available. Dwindling stocks of things like lithium could start to command increasingly high prices and lead to electric vehicles pricing themselves out of the automotive marketplace.

Scratching the surface

Thankfully solutions are already being offered, such as the Online Electric Vehicle (OLEV) from KAIST. Rather than relying on battery technology, the OLEV picks up charge using a non-contact magnetic charging method (where a power source is placed underneath the road surface and power is wirelessly picked up on the vehicle itself) so it doesn't matter if the car is moving or parked up, it still receives power.

In February 2009 KAIST researchers illustrated that it is possible for a vehicle to receive up to 80% power conveyance with a 1cm gap between the vehicle and the power line. A subsequent test drive of the technology (see gallery) was attended by dignitaries and government officials, including Korean President Lee Myung-bak, and provided the researchers with an opportunity to promote the concept.

As a possible solution to traffic congestion and to improve overall efficiency by minimizing air resistance and so reduce energy consumption, the test vehicles followed the power track in a convoy formation. It's thought that road safety and vehicle efficiency could be enhanced further by adopting technology that would allow the OLEV to drive itself in convoy mode, something recently discussed by the c,mm,n project.

By bus too

In July 2009 the researchers successfully supplied up to 60% power to a bus over a gap of 12cm from a power line embedded in the ground using power supply and pick up technology developed in-house.

It is thought that if only half of the Koreans currently on the road switched to the OLEV system, the country could reduce its imports of crude oil by 35 billion barrels per year, saving an estimated USD$3 billion. Thanks to the positive reception the technology has received at recent demonstrations, KAIST has set up a company to take care of activities which will hopefully see the systems through to commercial production and release, and possible future export.