Could electrostatic motors be the future?

A spin off company from the University of Wisconsin's College of Engineering has developed a brand new electric motor that uses electrostatic force rather than magnetism, as used by conventional motors.

C-Motive Technologies claim that their invention should lead to cheaper, lighter and more efficient electric motors. Their tabletop version of the motor does not require expensive rare earth metals and the coil uses cheaper aluminium as opposed to the copper found in current magnetic motors.

C-Motive's co-founder, Dan Ludois, said, “Rather than magnetism, we are using the force that hold your clothes together when you take them out of the drier — electrostatic force. This technique can power anything that needs to move, and that you don’t want to touch while it’s moving.”

The electrostatic motor has nested static and rotating plates that are kept slightly apart from one another using air cushioning. As Ludois explains, "There is no contact, and no maintenance."

The idea of constructing motors that use electrostatic force dates from the 18th century. Benjamin Franklin and others designed and built motors around this principle, but were unable to develop their designs into practical devices. The development of new materials and mechanical engineering processes has allowed electrostatic motors to become a more realistic proposition. Specifically, the motor relies on electronics that can precisely control a high voltage, high frequency electric field and on fluid mechanics to set up the air cushions.

One of the first real world applications for the new technology could be as a generator for use in wind turbines. C-Motive received a grant to fund the development of an electrostatic generator from the American National Science Foundation in 2014. Electric generators are essentially electric motors in reverse.

The development of the electrostatic motor began when Dan Ludois and his fellow founders of C-Motive were still University of Wisconsin PhD students. The University supported their patent application and provided seed funding. Ludois now divides his time between being an assistant professor at the university and working at C-Motive. The other two co-founders are now full time employees of C-Motive Technologies, working alongside a further three full time staff.