Technology & Innovation

Dr. Omer Onar, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Moving the Needle on Wireless Power Transfer

04.29.24 | 6 min read | Text by Zoë Brouns

The Office of Technology Transfers is holding a series of webinars on cutting-edge technologies being developed at the DOE National Labs – and the transformative applications they could have globally for clean energy. We sat down with the people behind these technologies – the experts who make that progress possible. These interviews highlight why a strong energy workforce is so important, from the lab into commercial markets. These interviews have been edited for length and do not necessarily reflect the views of the DOE. Be sure to attend DOE’s next National Lab Discovery Series webinar on wireless power transfer technology on Tuesday, April 30.

Dr. Omer Onar was always interested in solving mechanical problems. From his initial engineering degrees in Turkey to his selection as a Weinberg Fellow at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Dr. Onar has been pushing forward the field of power electronics and electromagnetics for almost two decades. His work today may enable faster, more secure wireless charging for electric vehicle fleets, mobile devices, household appliances, and more.

Beginnings at the Illinois Institute of Technology 

After completing both an undergraduate and graduate degree in electrical engineering in his home country of Turkey, Dr. Onar chose to pursue his PhD at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). Although he received offers from multiple prestigious universities, he chose to attend IIT because of its personalized approach to research and study. “They had a young and energetic team who all loved working together. I was basically told that if I went to one of the larger institutions, I wouldn’t see my advisor for the first few years.” 

Because of the standards of the program, its strong pace, and the quality of the professors and advisors, Dr. Onar was able to publish multiple journal articles and receive several citations of his work, all before completing the degree. 

Throughout all of his degrees, Dr. Onar cultivated a lifelong passion for understanding the mechanical side of engineering. “In high school, I wasn’t as much interested in electrical engineering, things like magnetics and optics that are more virtual – I liked the mechanics and being able to touch and see the things I was working on.”

A Weinberg Fellow at Oak Ridge 

Before he even graduated from IIT, Dr. Onar had an offer from Oak Ridge National Laboratory to become a Weinberg Fellow. The Weinberg Fellowship, named after the former director of the Lab, is targeted at exceptional researchers and is only offered to two or three scientists lab-wide. It not only gave Dr. Onar his start at the Lab, but also allowed him to spend 50% of his time pursuing independent research in his first few years – an invaluable experience for any engineer. 

“Since [joining the Lab], I have been so enthusiastic about working here – I’ve never looked at any other opportunities because the Lab offers such a great research environment. We work with academia, industry, and research, so I have the ability to reach out to all flavors of work environments.” 

After 14 years of working at the Lab, Dr. Onar has had the opportunity to work on a number of different projects related to electrical engineering and power systems. His research led him to focus primarily on wireless power transfer technologies and especially the wireless charging of electric vehicles. 

The Power of Wireless Transfer

Dr. Onar’s research has massive implications for a decarbonized world – not just in how we charge electric vehicles, but also in terms of fuel efficiency, health and safety, human capital planning, critical minerals, and internet access. He’s been working on developing technologies for wireless power transfer – more simply, tech that would allow for wireless charging of electronics. 

More advanced wireless power transfer will open up what’s possible for entire industries. It will allow individual consumers to charge their electric vehicles through the surface they drive or park on, without plugging it in – which is a great convenience. But more importantly, the tech could be used to improve employee safety. Drivers for companies with large vehicle fleets are contracted for just that – driving. When companies use electric fleets, it requires an entire additional set of infrastructure for charging that those drivers are not qualified to use safely. This requires additional employees whose sole responsibility is to unplug and plug in vehicles at the beginning and end of the day. Wireless charging automates the whole process and reduces costs while retaining productive and safe jobs. 

Wireless charging will also allow for more efficient charging overall. A common concern with electric vehicles is the lack of available charging infrastructure and the long time it takes to fully charge. The technology that Dr. Onar is working on will allow cars to pull off the interstate, into a charging area, charge for 20 minutes without having to plug the vehicle in, and keep driving. This could be extended to commercial heavy-duty vehicles as well – replacing heavy emitting diesel trucks with electric ones and enabling frequent, opportunistic, and ubiquitous wireless charging systems. Wireless charging would allow drivers to load and unload deliveries while continuing to charge, without exposure to harmful pollution. 

The Future of Power Systems

Dr. Onar is shaping the technology horizon as well – working with wide bandgap semiconductors and electric motors that no longer require rare earth minerals in their construction. Using materials other than silicon in semiconductors, like silicon carbide or gallium nitride, could enable more applications for wireless power transfer, such as long distance wireless charging, possibly using one transmitter and multiple receivers on each device. For example, imagine walking into a coffee shop and your phone or laptop begins to charge just like the wireless internet connection. In future, this concept could allow for entire homes with refrigerators, washers and dryers, and entertainment systems that are all powered wirelessly. 

One barrier to expanding the use of electric vehicles is the lack of reliable access to critical and rare earth minerals used in manufacturing magnets in their motors. The U.S. lacks mining and recycling facilities at the price point and scale needed to increase construction. But Dr. Onar’s team has been researching how to design wound rotor synchronous machines that will eliminate the use of those permanent magnets and help shore up domestic energy security. 

“We don’t want to have to rely on another country’s resources in our transportation systems… we’re applying our experience in wireless power transfer systems into the wound rotor synchronous motors, developing and validating enabling technologies to address the challenges in these motors – each one brings us a step closer to commercialization.”

Some of these applications are several years away, but they are a glimpse of what could be possible with the research currently underway in Dr. Onar’s office. 

Strengthening the Engineering Community 

Dr. Onar has had the opportunity to work with exceptional teams over the course of his career thus far – and some of his proudest accomplishments are the recognition they’ve received on a national level. As a grad student  Dr. Onar received two scholarships in addition to his Weinberg Fellowship, and as a Lab employee has received a number of awards for his performance. In 2016, his team received an R&D 100 award – a highly prestigious award recognizing outstanding research and innovation – for their work developing the world’s first 20 – kilowatt wireless charging system for passenger cars. While most systems were designed for 6.6 kW power rating back then, their 20-kW system meant 3 times faster charging with very high efficiency that exceeded 94% – a huge step forward. In addition, his team has received awards from UT-Battelle and the Department of Energy, in addition to several best paper and best presentation awards. 

“The R&D 100 awards are the Oscars of research and innovation – it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to receive one,” he said, with understated pride. Americans should applaud; his work today to improve technologies from our phones to our vehicles will be instrumental to how we live tomorrow. 

In addition to his professional recognition, Dr. Onar is actively supporting the next generation of scientists. He contributes his time to the engineering community, serving as the general chair of the Institutes of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Applied Power Electronics Conference and Exposition (APEC) in 2022 and the general chair of the IEEE Transportation Electrification Conference and Expo (ITEC) in 2017. His continuous dedication to advancing technology and his contributions to the field at large have already had an impact far beyond his individual research, and will continue to for decades to come.