Remember the trick where you rub a balloon on your head and it sticks to the wall? The same driver of that phenomenon — static electricity — is helping Wisconsin startup C-Motive Technologies reinvent the electric motor to create what it calls the world’s first commercially viable electrostatic motor.
“What we’re doing is fundamentally different because we don’t use magnetism; we use the force of static cling,” said CEO Matt Maroon. “It is the same force that causes socks to stick together when they come out of the dryer.”
C-Motive recently partnered with auto component manufacturer Sona Comstar to develop electrostatic motors for electric vehicles, with production expected to begin in 2026. Sona will also invest in C-Motive.
In addition, C-Motive has received financial and technical investments from Chicago’s Evergreen Climate Innovations, which Maroon says helps the business develop its operational and marketing strategy.
Get your motor running
Conventional motors are everywhere, powering a plethora of devices from coffee grinders to air conditioner fans. Motors typically run by taking in electricity and converting it to a magnetic field, and various magnetic interactions create motion.
Electrostatic motors instead use the basic concept of static electricity but at a massive scale that produces adequate amounts of torque and power for applications like electric vehicles.
Electrostatic motors are highly efficient. C-Motive boasts that its motors deliver more than 95% efficiency for low-speed, high-torque applications, Maroon said. They don’t need a gearbox or a cooling system because they don’t heat up.
“The secret sauce to the whole thing is that our motors are filled with a proprietary dielectric liquid,” Maroon said. “It’s really the combination of these three things — mechanical design, the electrical topology, and the dielectric liquid — which has brought us to this point. The result is a machine that really stands in a class by itself.”
Sustainability and supply chain perks
The electrostatic motors’ components include a minimal amount of copper and no rare earth metals, reducing the need for mining and refining and lowering their overall environmental impact. Upgrading from conventional motors could help companies achieve their carbon reduction and climate goals.
“This is going to be the most sustainable motor ever developed from both the standpoint of its embodied carbon and its energy efficiency,” Maroon said.
And the partnership with Sona Comstar is mutually beneficial: C-Motive gets in at the forefront of vehicle electrification, and Sona Comstar gets to bypass supply chain snags and rising costs for magnets and rare earth metals.
“One of the really clever ways that we’ve designed the motor is that it can be easily produced with pick and place manufacturing; we’re not talking about exotic equipment to make these things,” Maroon said. “All the materials that we use can be regionally sourced so you can manufacture it basically anywhere.”
Location, location, location
Dan Ludois and Justin Reed co-founded C-Motive with electrostatic motor technology they developed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They didn’t create the first electrostatic motor — Ben Franklin did that, Maroon explained — but they advanced the science and pushed it toward commercialization.
“It’s an old technology. But like so many other things, it just kind of got put on the shelf until someone else looked at it from a different perspective and was able to produce a motor that now has hundreds and hundreds of applications,” Maroon said. “And we’re really just starting to scratch the surface on it.”
Specific regional advantages will keep C-Motive in the Madison area instead of migrating to another tech hub.
“Many people don’t know this, but the University of Wisconsin-Madison is kind of a world-recognized leader in electric motor and generator technology,” Maroon said.
“Staying here has allowed us to tap into the university and use a lot of their expertise, but just as importantly hire a lot of really, really smart graduates … who keep pushing the technology forward.”
The road ahead
C-Motive’s plan involved starting with smaller motors, perfecting that technology, then progressing to larger motors like those in EVs. The initial motors released this year to pilot program customers are for industrial applications like conveyor belts, fans, and pumps. These indoor, stationary applications provide a “good place for us to start — for us to prove the technology,” Maroon said. “We’ll have very big impacts both in terms of wasted electricity and carbon emissions.”
The company plans to have a notable presence in the e-mobility space. That could include everything from two-wheelers to passenger electric vehicles to construction and agricultural equipment. The motors also hold significant potential for use in wind turbines.
C-Motive does not intend to manufacture its own electrostatic motors. Rather, it will work to perfect its technology over the next six years or so and ultimately will tap into existing manufacturing capacity. This year’s focus is on launching pilot projects, and next year is expected to be about scaling up.
“There’s probably a dozen to two dozen motors that are within a 50-foot radius of where you’re sitting right now; it’s just no one ever thinks about it,” Maroon said. “If we can get as big as the market is, we can make a huge, huge impact both economically and environmentally.”