17-year-old Robert Sansone with his innovative synchronous reluctance motor.
17-year-old Robert Sansone with his innovative synchronous reluctance motor. (Credit: Society for Science)
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17-Year-Old Boy Designs a Magnet-Free Motor That Could Revolutionize EVs

Robert Sansone, a 17-year-old, developed a working prototype of a ground-breaking synchronous reluctance motor for use in electric vehicles. This year’s Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), the world’s largest high school STEM competition, awarded him first place (and $75,000) for his work.

Natural-Born Engineer

Robert Sansone is a natural-born engineer. The inventor from Fort Pierce, Florida, has worked on at least sixty engineering projects in his free time, ranging from robotic hands to high-speed running boots and a go-kart that can achieve more than 70 miles per hour.

Sansone stumbled across a video discussing electric vehicles’ benefits and drawbacks a few years back. According to the video, most electric car engines use rare-earth elements, which are costly to extract financially and environmentally.

A kilogram of the required rare-earth materials can cost several hundred dollars. Copper, on the other hand, is worth $7.83 per kg. “I have a natural interest in electric motors. So with that sustainability issue, I wanted to tackle it and try and design a different motor,” explained Sansone.

Sansone Devises Methods to Improving EVs

The high school student had heard of synchronous reluctance motors, which do not utilize these rare-earth components. This type of motor is currently employed in fans and pumps but lacks the power required for an electric vehicle when used on its own. Therefore, Sansone began formulating ideas about how to improve its performance.

Sansone spent a year developing a prototype of a new synchronous reluctance motor that was more efficient and had more rotational force (or torque) than existing models. First, the prototype was constructed using 3-D printed plastic, copper wires, and a steel rotor. Then, it was put to the test using a variety of meters to gauge power and a laser tachometer to measure the motor’s rotational speed.

Heath Hofmann, an electrical and computer engineering professor at the University of Michigan, explains that the less environmentally friendly permanent magnet motors use materials like samarium, neodymium, and dysprosium. These are in high demand because they are used in many different products, including headphones and earbuds. In addition, Hofmann has substantial experience with electric vehicles, including collaborating with Tesla to create control algorithms for its propulsion system. According to Hofmann, Tesla has recently started utilizing permanent magnets in its motors.

17-Year-Old Boy Designs a Motor That Could Revolutionize EVs
In torque and efficiency tests, Sansone’s motor outperformed a similarly-designed traditional synchronous reluctance motor. (Credit: Robert Sansone)

Hofmann added:

“The number of applications that use magnets seems to be getting larger and larger. Many materials are mined in China, so the price can often depend upon our trade status with China.”

Synchronous Reluctance Motor

An electric motor’s rotor is spun by rotating electromagnetic fields. The wire coils create these electromagnetic fields in the stator, the motor’s stationary outer section. In permanent magnet motors, magnets fastened to the rotor’s edge create a magnetic field that is drawn to the field’s opposing poles. This pull causes the rotor to spin.

Magnets are not used in synchronous reluctance motors. Instead, a steel rotor with air spaces carved into it aligns with the rotating magnetic field. The key to this procedure is reluctance or a material’s magnetism. Torque is produced as the rotor spins in tandem with the magnetic field. More torque is generated when there is a greater saliency ratio or difference in magnetism between two materials (in this case, the non-magnetic air spaces and steel).

Sansone Builds a Working Prototype

Sansone concluded that he could build an additional magnetic field inside a motor instead of using air gaps. This would raise the saliency ratio, which would result in higher torque. Other components are included in his design, but he cannot reveal them since he intends to patent the technology in the future.

Sansone said:

“Once I had this initial idea, then I had to do some prototyping to try and see if that design would actually work. But, unfortunately, I don’t have tons of resources for making very advanced motors, and so I had to make a smaller version—a scale model—using a 3D printer.”

Before testing his design, he had to make several prototypes. “I didn’t have a mentor to help me, so each time a motor failed, I had to do tons of research and try and troubleshoot what went wrong. But eventually, on the 15th motor, I was able to get a working prototype,” he explained.

Successful Testing

Sansone put his motor through tests for torque and efficiency before rewiring it to operate as a more conventional synchronous reluctance motor for comparison. At 300 revolutions per minute (RPM), he discovered that his innovative design displayed 39% more torque and 31% greater efficiency. Meanwhile, it was 37% more efficient at 750 RPM. However, he explains to Top of the Class, a podcast produced by Crimson Education, that he could not test his prototype at higher rotations per minute because the plastic pieces would overheat. He discovered this lesson the hard way when one of his prototypes melted on his desk.

In contrast, Tesla’s Model S motor can spin up to 18,000 RPM, according to Konstantinos Laskaris, the company’s principal motor designer, who spoke with Christian Ruoff of the electric vehicle magazine “Charged” in 2016.

Sansone’s complete experimental setup.
Sansone’s complete experimental setup. (Credit: Robert Sansone)

In a second experiment, Sansone confirmed his findings and, according to his project presentation, “isolated the theoretical principle under which the unique design creates magnetic saliency.” This experiment effectively ruled out all other potential factors and proved that his design’s increased torque and efficiency were attributable to its higher saliency ratio. “He’s definitely looking at things the right way. There’s the potential that it could be the next big thing,” Hofmann said of Sansone. However, he continues, many professors spend their entire lives conducting research, and it’s “very rare that they wind up taking over the world.”

According to Hofmann, synchronous reluctance motor materials are inexpensive, but the machines are complicated and challenging to build. Therefore, their high manufacturing costs represent a barrier to their widespread use—and a significant limitation on Sansone’s creation. Sansone concurs but notes that “with new technologies like additive manufacturing [such as 3-D printing], it would be easier to construct it in the future.”

Future Plans

Sansone is currently working on calculations and 3-D modeling for version 16 of his engine, which he intends to create out of more robust materials to test it at more significant revolutions per minute. He says he will proceed with the patenting process if his synchronous motor continues to operate quickly and efficiently.

Sansone hopes to attend MIT after completing his senior year at Fort Pierce Central High School. He will use his ISEF prize money to pay for his college tuition.

Sansone claims that he had not initially intended to participate in the competition. But when he discovered that one of his classes permitted him to do a one-year research project and paper on a subject of his choosing, he decided to take advantage of the chance to continue working on his novel motor. “I was thinking if I’m able to put this much energy into it, I might as well make it a science fair project and compete with it,” he explained. As a result, he advanced to ISEF after performing well in the district and state contests.

Sansone said:

“Rare-earth materials in existing electric motors are a major factor undermining the sustainability of electric vehicles. Seeing the day when EVs are fully sustainable due to the help of my novel motor design would be a dream come true.”

Sansone plans to approach car makers after his next round of testing, but he is hopeful that his motor will eventually become the standard for electric vehicles.

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