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Dionysios Aliprantis wants to find a way to develop computer modeling technology that will show engineers how to chip away at the surfaces of electric motors to create new designs and shapes that can increase power generation.

“The goal is to get more power out of the same size motor,” he said. “Or, that could mean getting the same power with a smaller motor.”

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Aliprantis is not looking for a huge improvement in a motor’s performance, just a small piece.

“I’m looking for a little bit of increase, maybe 5 percent or 1 percent,” said the Iowa State University assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. “But multiply that number by the number of hybrid cars, let’s say, and you could get savings in the billions of dollars. The potential here could be huge.”

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Aliprantis’ is able to work on that incremental increase through a five-year, $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Program. Assisting with the motor design project is Yanni Li, a doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering.

Aliprantis and Li want to take advantage of the fact most electric motors and generators operate in just one direction – in most applications there’s no real need for them to go into reverse. The motors, however, have always offered equal performance no matter which way they’re rotating.

And so the engineers are exploring how they can improve electric motors by optimizing performance in a preferred direction of rotation. To do that, they’ve written a computer modeling program that incrementally changes the design of the motors – just like a sculptor chipping away – and calculates when the surface shape is just right.

The teeth that hold coils of wire within an electric motor have typically build up with a symmetrical shape that maintains performance in either direction. By making the teeth asymmetrical, engineers hope the motor can pick up some power when rotating in the preferred direction.

“We are trying to develop a systematic way of getting to the right shape,” Aliprantis said. “This idea is very simple, but motors are still being designed using techniques that are essentially one hundred years old.”

Aliprantis is also busy with other projects to improve electric motors, advance alternative energy systems and improve engineering education:
• Another project looks to improve the models used to predict the dynamic performance of electric motors as engineers experiment with different power electronics and control technologies.
• Aliprantis is also collecting data on how much solar energy is available throughout a day. The idea is to improve power forecasts by developing better models of cloud cover. That would help utilities make better estimates of the power they can expect from solar panels on a given day.
• Aliprantis is part of an Iowa State faculty team that’s developing a new, multidisciplinary doctoral program in Wind Energy Science, Engineering and Policy.

Because electric motors are all around – in vehicles, wind turbines, power plants and all kinds of machinery – Aliprantis said finding new ways to improve their performance can make a real difference in the development of sustainable energy resources.

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