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Harnessing Wasted Heat to Power Your Car

By Lito Carasig - Thursday, June 02, 2011

As more and more vehicles are packed onto our super highways, you can literally see the heat and exhaust fumes clogging the air. Almost 40 per cent of the fuel in our vehicles ends up being wasted as heat. Why, if there’s some way we could harness that wasted heat, perhaps one day we could power our cars with recycled heat energy!

Engineers at General Motors and BSST, makers of thermoelectric-devices, based in California, are independently installing and testing thermoelectric generator prototypes in cars and SUVs.  GM opted to install its unit in a Chevrolet SUV while BSST will test its prototype in BMW and Ford cars.

Using new materials, made up of a combination of hafnium and zirconium, BSSTs prototype thermoelectric generator can withstand temperatures of up to 500 degrees Celsius.  By using these materials, the generator efficiency has been increased by 40%. 

On the other hand, researchers at GM are using a new type of thermoelectrics called skutterudites which are cheaper than the commonly used thermoelectric tellurides and do show signs of performing better at higher temperatures.  It was noted that the device installed in the Chevrolet Suburban test unit generated 350 watts of power, thus increasing fuel efficiency by 3 per cent.  Almost negligible, you say, but the figures are expected to greatly improve once all the data has been gathered from the tests currently being conducted.

Skutterudites fabrication is a complicated and time-intensive process and at the same time, it is very difficult to actually integrate them into workable devices.  Engineers are faced with coming up with good electrical and thermal contacts which can withstand the great mechanical stress on the contact-thermoelectric interface or junction.  There is also the challenge of minimizing, if not eliminating, the resistance which heats up the contacts.

Another hurdle that the designers are facing is how to effectively integrate the device into the vehicles themselves.  Presently, the unit, which looks like a muffler, is mounted into the exhaust system by cutting out a section of the pipe.  Engineers will have to come up with a unit design that integrates into the vehicle itself if the technology is going to prove to be successful long term.

The greatest challenge to both the engineers and the designers is to find ways of manufacturing the new materials cheaper and faster, as while the technology looks promising, it’s still a long way off from being commercially viable.  Unless this issue is successfully addressed, we might still have a very long ride ahead of us before we can effectively utilize this new technology.

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