The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is working on nanotechnology that would extend the range of electric cars by allowing them to heat and cool the passenger cabins with a new type of heat pump. The end goal: electric cars that are more affordable to operate.

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WASHINGTON — As part of his plan to get 1 million electric cars on the road by 2015, President Obama wants Congress to give buyers a tax credit of up to $10,000 next year, but the battery-operated vehicles have one major disadvantage: They can be costly to heat.

Currently, the maximum tax credit is $7,500, and some Republicans scoff at it, calling it a subsidy for the wealthy and noting that the average yearly income of a Chevy Volt electric-car owner is $170,000.

But engineers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, known as PNNL, in Richland, are conducting research that could go a long way toward making the cars more affordable — not necessarily to buy, but to operate. And that could ultimately make the cars more popular with the public and help achieve the president’s target.

While internal-combustion engines generate a lot of heat, making it easy to heat the passenger cabin in winter, electric vehicles produce very little excess heat. As a result, providing electricity for the same amount of cabin heat can reduce their driving range by up to 40 percent.

The researchers want to create a new, 5-pound molecular heat pump, the size of a 2-liter bottle, that would handle both heating and cooling and allow the cars to travel longer distances before they’d need to be plugged in again.

The team, which includes chemists from the University of South Florida, won a grant of $803,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy for its pioneering work. Funding began Dec. 1.

“We’re really just barely under way,” said Pete McGrail, of Pasco, a laboratory fellow and engineer who has worked at PNNL for 29 years.

The science is complicated, but the basic idea is straightforward: Instead of using a conventional heat pump to control heating and air conditioning, the cars would be heated and cooled with a new class of nanomaterial — or an “electrical metal organic framework” — that responds to applied electricity to get the job done. And the new heat pumps would be much lighter, compact and efficient.

“The vehicle is going to be more attractive because it’s going to be able to travel longer distances on the same charge you’re putting in overnight,” McGrail said. “So it’s going to make it more marketable, more attractive, and it’s going to take less energy.”

Praveen Thallapally, a PNNL senior research scientist, said that if the project is successful, it could reduce the costs of operating an electric car by as much as a third.

Backers say it offers other key advantages, such as helping decrease greenhouse-gas emissions and reliance on foreign oil.

But McGrail said results would vary for individual cars, based on temperatures and driving conditions.

“Are there hills involved? How cold was it?” he asked. “If you left on a day in Minnesota when it was 10 below zero, it’s going to take a lot more energy to heat the cabin than if you’re talking about a mild spring day of 40 Fahrenheit.”

Annual sales

According to the Electric Drive Transportation Association, a Washington, D.C.-based industry group, electric-drive vehicles accounted for a little more than 2 percent of annual car sales in the United States in 2011. But as those numbers increase, some states fear losing the revenues from gasoline taxes that states rely on to fix roads.

In Washington state, for example, the state Senate this year has approved a bill that would require electric-car owners to pay a $100 tax every year when they renew their vehicle licenses.

While the national-lab research gears up in Washington state, Congress is fighting over the 2013 budget released by Obama last month. The president urged Congress to increase the maximum tax credit from $7,500 to $10,000 for an electric car.

Republican Rep. Mike Kelly, of Pennsylvania, introduced a bill in January that would repeal the tax credit, saying “our nation can no longer afford to subsidize vehicles” that lack market demand, particularly with a $15 trillion federal debt.

“The bottom line is, while our nation borrows 42 cents on every dollar, taxpayers are paying for an electric-vehicle tax credit that has cost tens of millions of dollars and that largely benefits upper-income Americans,” Kelly said.