According to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s 2008 report (a pdf), more than two-thirds of the fuel used to generate power in the United States is lost as heat.  The report claims the U. S. has the lowest energy productivity (a measure of how much raw energy goes into every dollar of GDP) of any of the world’s developed economies.  Getting energy out of all that heat would offer a lot of power back to the economy.

Alphabet Energy aims to take the decades-old idea of generating electricity from captured heat, and deploy it at massive scale on the cheap with a little help from nanotechnology and the semiconductor industry.  By providing a thermoelectric chip that can be inserted into any exhaust flue or engine to convert heat into electrical power, Alphabet hopes to become the “Intel of waste heat,” a description from Matthew L. Scullin, PhD. the company’s chief executive and co-founder.

A Standard Peltier Element for reference. No Alphabit image seems available. Click image for the largest view.

A thermoelectric device is simply a device that can make use of heat to generate power with no moving parts using the heat just as a solar cell generates electricity from using visible light. It is based on the long-known principle that electrons can be pushed through a material by heat. Alphabet says its innovation is in both the choice of material and proprietary technology that gives it low thermal conductivity, and makes it highly suitable for both scale and miniaturization for use in small devices as well as in large factory flues. The device is connected by wire to the plant’s electrical system or to the grid, so it feeds in power converted by heat in real time.

Alphabet’s efforts come as part of a larger drive by researchers, entrepreneurs, and trade groups to make use of heat energy that’s currently lost to the atmosphere.  Policy making is catching up – Representative Paul Tonko of New York, former head of his state’s public power research authority, introduced a bill that would provide a 30 percent investment tax credit for installation of waste heat recovery systems in industrial settings. At least one Congressman is on his toes.

Waste heat recovery is an old idea; everyone buying fuels and seeing the power disappear into the air has a little bit of financial agony when a fuel is burned without full use.  Cogeneration (also called combined heat and power) systems, can generate electricity or mechanical power and useful heat at a facility that requires thermal energy, or convert waste energy on-site into electricity and mechanical energy. In 2008, the Oak Ridge researchers reported that the 3,300 cogeneration sites in the United States accounted for nearly 9 percent of the country’s total electricity generating capacity, and called for a push to raise that to 20 percent by 2030—a level already exceeded by some European countries.  It’s a big potential field, in 2008 cogeneration accounted for more than half of total national power production in Denmark, nearly 40 percent in Finland and more than 30 percent in Russia.

The catch in the U.S. is another regulation issue that generally bars utilities from reaping financial rewards from efficiency gains – they’re required to pass the savings along to ratepayers, taking out the incentive to invest.

Alphabet claims it can radically change the price point in the heat-power equation by using a relatively abundant, low-cost material that ordinarily wouldn’t be effective as a thermoelectric semiconductor. The company uses technology originally developed at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory by Scullin and Professor Peidong Yang, PhD to adapt this material and lower its thermal conductivity, basically allowing it to produce more electricity with less heat.

Alphabet plans the earliest application of its technology will be in places like factories, where waste heat projects have been concentrated at the largest and hottest sources and at industrial sites and power plants.  Should the firm’s technology work as planned it could be a path for economic recycling of energy in a wider variety of settings, from cell phones to cars. Scullin emphasizes that Alphabet remains in the very early stages of commercializing this technology for mobile applications.

Alphabet’s chip is produced in a way that’s similar to how microchips for electronic devices are made. Using the semiconductor industry’s economies of scale will allow the firm to slash costs enough to install its systems for “well under $1 a watt,” said Scullin in comparing to installation costs double or triple that amount for some competing waste heat recapture systems.

Scullin explains that depending on the flow rate, chemical composition, and temperatures of the exhaust coming out of an industrial flue, Alphabet’s technology could deliver a payback time of two to four years for a manufacturer.

Alphabet plans to complete a pilot installation at an industrial facility with a large waste heat source in 2011, with an aim of winning commercial customers by 2012. Scullin revealed most of the potential customers in discussion with Alphabet are multinational corporations.  Scullin notes that waste heat is one of few power sources that the U.S. government does not subsidize. While fossil and renewable energy projects can benefit from subsidies and tax credits the lack of incentives for waste heat recovery translates to a disincentive for investments in energy-saving technology.

That means the Tonko bill, co-sponsored by Representatives Jay Inslee of Washington Shelly Berkley of Nevada and Texas Representative Ron Paul, could change that.  There is an abundance of energy recycling ideas already proven to work.  By taking out the disincentive and applying a leveling of incentives waste heat technologies could take off.  Remember, in recycling heat the energy is already bought, earned and paid for – the power recovered is fuel cost free.


5 Comments so far

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