Monday, 13 October 2014

US Company Builds World's Largest Thermoelectric Generator

What would you say if you were an oil rig manager and you received a call from a new start up claiming that they could save you as much as 3% of your fuel by harnessing the heat produced by diesel generators?  If you spent millions of pounds every year on fuel, you would likely be intrigued by the offer.  Well, it turns out that the scenario we just proposed is not fiction.  An American company has built the world's largest thermoelectric generator that can drastically cut engine emissions and reduce fuel consumption.

The company, known as Alphabet Energy, has managed to design and build their device based on a highly efficient thermoelectric material discovered by researchers at the University of Michigan (USA).  The material converts heat into usable electricity through a process known as the Seebeck effect.

The Seebeck effect is a naturally occurring phenomenon in which two opposing metals create an electric current when responding to the temperature differences between them.  Thermoelectric materials taking advantage of this phenomenon have been around for decades however, until the University of Michigan discovery, there has not been a material that could be used cost-effectively for commercial purposes.  The materials have simply been too expensive to produce.

Alphabet Energy CEO Matt Scullin says his company's new device can be connected to the exhaust of a 1,000 kW generator and, through the Seebeck effect, reduce fuel consumption by some 2.5% simply by capturing the heat and using it to generate electricity.  The electricity would be enough to reduce fuel consumption by more than 52,000 litres.

Scullin went on to say that, the device could be scaled down for use with smaller engines, or scaled up to accommodate larger generators.  He says the first applications for his company's device will most likely be found in the oil, gas and mining industries.  These could use the thermoelectric generator in remote areas where diesel powered generators provide the electricity for normal operations.

Other Potential Applications

We would be lying if we said we were not intrigued by the idea of a scalable thermoelectric generator.  Could it be that this technology may have other applications in the future?  For example, MIT Technology Review says that power plants waste as much as 80% of their heat energy through exhaust.  If that heat energy can be harnessed with a scalable thermoelectric generator, why could we not do the same thing for a data centre?

There are already some projects under way aiming to use the heat generated by data centres for the purposes of community heating or driving turbines that help cool the data centre in question.  Nevertheless, what if we could also use some of that heat to generate electricity that could either be sent back to the grid or utilised by the facility?  It is an intriguing question.

Time will tell if Alphabet Energy's new device enjoys commercial success.  If it does, we can see plenty of potential for other applications in the near future.

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