Chevy Volt Sparks a Series of Plug-in Hybrids

Expect many new plug-in cars to use the gasoline engine only as an extra battery

3 min read

Iconic U.S. car company General Motors turned a page in its history on a cold day this winter in suburban New Jersey. It sold the first production version of its Chevrolet Volt to a retail buyer—a retired pilot named Jeffrey Kaffee. With that sale comes the start of the first real test of consumer appetites for two concepts long in the making: hybrid cars whose battery you can recharge by plugging them in at home, and so-called series hybrid technology.

The Volt is the world's first production series hybrid-electric vehicle. Like a conventional hybrid, it has both an electric traction motor and a gasoline engine. Once its 16-kilowatt-hour battery pack is depleted, the 1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine switches on but does not drive the wheels mechanically. Instead, it turns a 55-kW generator that provides current to the 111-kW electric motor that powers the front wheels. It's not a new concept—minus the battery pack, that's the same way diesel locomotives work. But until now, all hybrid cars have used their gasoline engines in parallel with their electric motors, combining their torque to turn the wheels.

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A photo shows separated components of the axial flux motor in the order in which they appear in the finished motor.

The heart of any electric motor consists of a rotor that revolves around a stationary part, called a stator. The stator, traditionally made of iron, tends to be heavy. Stator iron accounts for about two-thirds of the weight of a conventional motor. To lighten the stator, some people proposed making it out of a printed circuit board.

Although the idea of replacing a hunk of iron with a lightweight, ultrathin, easy-to-make, long-lasting PCB was attractive from the outset, it didn’t gain widespread adoption in its earliest applications inside lawn equipment and wind turbines a little over a decade ago. Now, though, the PCB stator is getting a new lease on life. Expect it to save weight and thus energy in just about everything that uses electricity to impart motive force.

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