Part Seven: Electric and hybrid vehicles

In part seven of his ongoing look into EVs and hybrids, Peter Coombes of Tech-Club considers the power electronics system

Published:  22 June, 2018

Over the past few months, we have looked at battery and electric motor technologies of electric and hybrid vehicles,
as well as looking at the advantages and disadvantages of batter power compared to fossil fuel power.  
Irrespective of whether a vehicle is powered solely by batteries and an electric motor or whether the vehicle is a hybrid that has the addition of a petrol engine for propulsion and
re-charging the batteries, the vehicle will require a sophisticated electronic system to manage and modify the electrical energy. In effect, the vehicles have an electrical management system that is often referred to as the ‘power electronics’.

Controlling electric motor speed and power
The obvious task of the power electronics system is to control the speed and power of the electric motor so that the vehicle can be driven at the required speed and achieve the required acceleration. As mentioned in a previous article, with Alternating Current (AC) motors the motor speed is regulated by altering the frequency of the 3-phases of alternating current. For light load cruise driving, the current flow provided by the battery pack to the electric motor might only be in the region of a 70 or 80 amps or less, but when the vehicle is being driven under high load conditions, the current requirement will be much higher. Therefore the power electronics can allow higher current flows to be delivered to the electric motor, with some reports quoting as high as 1,800 amps for brief periods on some Tesla vehicles during hard acceleration. However, the power electronics system will monitor currents and temperatures of the electronics, the batteries and the electric motor to ensure that overheating and damage do not occur. As an additional function, the power electronics systems will also control the cooling system (often a liquid cooling system) for the electronics, the batteries and the motor to help maintain acceptable temperatures.
Because most modern electric motors fitted to electric and hybrid vehicles are alternating current motors, the power electronics system must convert the direct current supplied by the battery into alternating current. The power electronics system therefore contains a DC to AC inverter.

Battery charging from a home charger or remote charging point
For pure electric vehicles the batteries are re-charged from home based chargers or remote charging points (and this is also true for many later generations of hybrid vehicles). The battery charging must be carefully controlled to prevent overheating and damage, therefore the power electronics system contains a charging control system to regulate the charging rate (voltage and current). Most charging devices provide alternating current, therefore an AC to DC converter forms part of the power electronics system to enable the batteries to receive direct current.
Note that for rapid charging (especially with lithium based batteries), the power electronics system can regulate the charging rate so that the batteries re-charge up to about 80% capacity relatively quickly (perhaps within 20 to 30 minutes with fast chargers), but to prevent overheating and damage, the charging rate is then significantly reduced for the remaining 20%
of charge.

Battery charging from an engine driven generator
Most mass produced hybrid vehicles use an internal combustion engine that can propel the vehicle, but the engine also drives a generator that can re-charge the main high voltage batteries. While the engine is running, the power electronics system again controls the charging rate; and again, the output from the generator passes through the AC to DC converter. Note that the power electronics system will be linked to or integrated with the engine management system, which will allow the power electronics to cause the engine to start and generate electricity if the batteries are low on stored electrical energy.
Because the electric motors fitted to electric and hybrid vehicles can usually function also as generators, when the vehicle is decelerating or braking (or coasting), the electric motor can therefore be used to help re-charge the batteries. The electrical output from the motor/generator will vary with speed; therefore the power electronics system must control the charging rate to the batteries. As with home/remote charging and charging with an engine driven generator, because the motor/generator produces an AC current, the generator output must pass through the AC to DC converter.

12-Volt battery charging
A 12-Volt electrical system is still used for electric vehicles, but because there is no engine driven alternator, the 12-volt battery is charged using power from the high voltage system. The power electronics system contains a DC to DC converter that converts the high voltage of the main battery pack down to the required voltage for the 12-volt battery. The charging rate for the 12-volt battery is also controlled by the power electronics system.

Additional functions of the power electronics system
As mentioned previously, modern electric vehicles (and hybrid vehicles) will be fitted with cooling systems to maintain the temperatures of the batteries, the electronics and the electric motor. Pure electric vehicles are more likely to be fitted with liquid cooling systems due to the higher currents required for the electric motor that is the only source of propulsion, whereas with hybrid vehicles that also use an internal combustion engine to propel the vehicle generally have less powerful electric motors and therefore often make use of air cooling. However, whichever system is used for cooling, the cooling system can be controlled by the power electronics system to regulate the amount of cooling being applied; note that with liquid cooling systems, the control can also apply to the electric cooling pumps that force the coolant to flow around the cooling system.
Another cooling or heating related function of the power electronics system is to ensure that the battery temperature is at the optimum temperature for charging (and for discharging when the battery is providing electrical power). Batteries charge much more efficiently and faster if they are at the optimum temperature of typically between 10 and 30ºC (or slightly higher for some lithium batteries); but the charging rate should be lowered for lower temperatures; and for many consumer type lithium based batteries, charging is not possible below 0ºC.
Because vehicles are equipped with a cooling/heating systems (for driver/passenger comfort as well as for controlling vehicle system temperatures), the power electronics system can switch on an electrical heater (that would form part of the cooling/heating system) when the batteries are being charged. Therefore, if the vehicle is being charged from a domestic based charger or remote charging station and the ambient temperature is low or below freezing, the battery cooling/heating system can raise the battery temperature to ensure charging take place at the fastest possible rate.

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