How a 17-year old revolutionized the EV motor

Robert Sansone has taken the world by storm with his design, but how did he do it?
Alice Cooke
The 17-year-old that revolutionized the EV motor.
  • Robert Sansone has developed a working prototype of a synchronous reluctance motor

  • He tailored existing synchronous reluctance motors to make them produce more torque

  • He’s going to spend his winnings on a college education, specifically at MIT, he hopes

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A 17-year-old has just won $75,000 for his work. But that’s not the real story here. The real story is that this teenager’s synchronous reluctance motor for electric vehicles (EVs), is genuinely groundbreaking

It doesn’t use any rare-earth elements (which other EV motors all do) and it’s considerably cheaper to produce, in what you could accurately describe as a win/win. 

He won the money at the 2022 Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), the world’s largest high school STEM competition. There, he was awarded first place and $75,000 for his work.

Who is Robert Sansone?

He’s a teenage inventor and engineer from Fort Pierce in Florida. And this isn’t his first rodeo. 

In fact, Sansone has worked on at least sixty engineering projects to date. These have ranged from robotic hands to high-speed running boots. He also put together a go-kart that could go at speeds of more than 70 miles per hour.

What prompted this development?

Sansone, who is still at high school, says he saw a video a few years ago that discussed the benefits and drawbacks of electric vehicles. It informed him that most electric car engines use rare-earth elements, which are costly to extract, in both financial and environmental terms. 

In fact, 1kg of the rare-earth materials in question can cost up to several hundred dollars. His new motor, on the other hand, uses copper, which costs around $8 for a 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,” Sansone says. 

Synchronous reluctance motors are nothing new. They’re currently used in fans and pumps, but aren’t anywhere near strong enough to power an EV motor, until Sansone started tinkering with them, that is. 

How did he do it? 

For over a year he worked on his synchronous reluctance motor prototype. It needed to be more efficient and had more rotational force (also known as torque).

He initially used 3-D printed plastic, copper wires, and a steel rotor. He then tested the motor to gauge its power and used a laser tachometer to measure its rotational speed.

How synchronous reluctance motors work

The rotor in a conventional electric motor is spun using rotating electromagnetic fields. But magnets (which are in high demand and largely sourced from China, which makes the supply reliant on trade relations) aren’t used in synchronous reluctance motors. 

Instead, they use a steel rotor with air spaces carved into it, which aligns with the rotating magnetic field. The torque comes from the rotor spinning in tandem with the magnetic field. The greater the saliency ratio, or difference in magnetism between two materials (in this case, the non-magnetic air spaces and steel), the more torque there is. 

What Sansone changed

Sansone built an extra magnetic field inside the motor, in place of the air gaps. This raised the saliency ratio and resulted in higher torque. 

But he’s not giving the whole game away, as his technology has yet to be patented. 

He says: “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.”

He adds that prior to testing the 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.”

Look who’s torquing

After testing his design, Sansone rewired it as a conventional synchronous reluctance motor, so he could compare the two. 

That’s when he found it had 39 percent more torque and was 31 percent more efficient at 300 revolutions per minute (RPM), and 37 percent more efficient at 750 RPM. 

He wanted to test it at higher RPMs too, but said this wasn’t possible with his prototype, as the plastic pieces would overheat and melt (which is what happened when he tried to do exactly that.)

What’s next?

Sansone is hard at work on version 16 of his engine, for which he’s going to use more robust materials so he can test it at higher RPMs. Then he says he’ll patent it. 

He also plans to approach car makers after his next round of testing, but says he is hopeful that his motor might eventually become the standard for EVs. 

He says: “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.”

Beyond that, he wants to go to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which is what he’s going to spend his $75,000 on. 

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