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Pittsburgh startup says its tech will let electric vehicles go the distance without recharging

 A charger goes into a car.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Based in the Hill District, CorePower Magnetics is pioneering a new technology that allows electric vehicles to drive farther and charge up faster.

Range anxiety remains one of the greatest obstacles to the broader adoption of electric vehicles, but local startup CorePower Magnetics is developing electrical components that could eliminate the problem.

The two-and-a-half-year-old company makes lightweight motors, inductors and transformers that allow battery-powered vehicles to travel farther without recharging, according to president and CEO Sam Kernion. He said the technology promises to speed up the charging process, too.

CorePower Magnetic's leaders include (from left) lead engineer Kevin Byerly, chief operating officer Leah Ohodnicki, president and CEO Sam Kernion, and chief technology officer Paul Ohodnicki.
Courtesy of CorePower Magnetics
CorePower Magnetic's leaders include (from left) lead engineer Kevin Byerly, chief operating officer Leah Ohodnicki, president and CEO Sam Kernion, and chief technology officer Paul Ohodnicki.

“I think that people are just starting to wake up to the fact that there's been a lot of focus on electrification and a lot of improvement with things like batteries [and] semiconductors. … The magnetics have just lagged behind,” Kernion said. But now, “all of a sudden people are like, ‘Oh wow, this is the area that we need the most improvement.’”

While electric vehicles account for a rising share of new auto purchases, more than one-quarter of U.S. consumers would not consider getting an electric-only vehicle, according to a Consumer Reports survey last winter. The top barriers included concerns about charging logistics and how many miles the vehicles can travel before needing a charge. On average, electric cars drive just half the distance of their gas-powered counterparts before requiring a "fill-up," Car and Driver reported this summer.

Kernion said CorePower addresses the issue by using an advanced metal alloy that holds power at higher frequencies than conventional magnetic materials. He likened the technology to FM radio, which produces a smooth sound more consistently than AM radio. He said the 5G mobile network represents a similar improvement, with its ability to process cell phone data more quickly and reliably than the 4G network and earlier iterations.

“Those advancements were really based on going to higher frequency levels, and that allowed for higher information density. It's the same idea for our applications,” he said. “But instead of information, now we're actually talking about how much power we can fit in.”

Existing systems, by contrast, cannot withstand high frequencies without becoming big and bulky, Kernion said. Otherwise, energy escapes, and parts overheat. “And so they can't actually operate at these extreme frequencies that allow us to shrink the size,” Kernion said.

Based on a decade of research at Carnegie Mellon University, CorePower’s technology has attracted $7.5 million in investment, including a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, according to the startup. It is working with agricultural equipment maker John Deere and power management company Eaton Corporation to expand its production.

Based in the Energy Innovation Center in the Hill District, CorePower employs about a dozen people. Kernion said it plans to add up to 10 positions within the next two years while also opening a pilot manufacturing plant in Allegheny County.

At the site, CorePower will make the nanocrystalline alloy its founders created as graduate students at Carnegie Mellon. The material is a metal composed primarily of iron, nickel, and cobalt, and Kernion said it could eliminate the need to use costly rare earth elements in motor components.

He said CorePower keeps its products compact and lightweight by using an advanced heat treatment process and specialized designs.

The company has had early success in developing military applications, Kernion said, and in the next year or so, it expects to deploy a standard product at high volume. He said it plans to expand into new markets, too, such as electric passenger vehicles, agricultural machinery, motorcycles and scooters.

He noted that CorePower’s products could also help the power grid to withstand higher demand and distribute renewable energy.

The startup has yet to achieve profitability, given its focus on growth. An August filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission shows the business had generated revenues between $1 million and $5 million.