5 Ways to Reclaim Engine Heat and Deliver More Efficient Cars

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Stick your hand behind a car exhaust. OK, don’t: It’s really hot. The burning sensation you feel is wasted energy. Most car engines have a mechanical efficiency of around 20 percent, climbing to 40 percent or so at optimum efficiency. That means a lot of waste: 36 percent of energy is lost to the radiator, and another 38 percent goes out the tailpipe.

But with car makers like Honda and BMW exploring heat reclamation, and recent advances in thermoelectrics and nanotechnology, this kind of inefficiency may soon be a thing of the past. Honda recently announced that it’s exploring the use of a heat-reclamation technology known as a Rankine cycle co-generation unit to reclaim some of the waste.

Alas, Honda’s presentation only improves the engine’s thermal efficiency by 3.8 percent; a far cry from the 80 percent that’s wasted. So we need something better.

Well, many researchers at universities and in car maker R&D centers have actually been hard at work on this problem for some time. Back in 2005, BMW announced plans to recapture wasted heat energy, claiming a 15% improvement in fuel efficiency from cars fitted with their Turbosteamer technology.

Cars are a great place to try and reclaim energy, since the differential between the engine (hot) and the air whizzing by (relatively cool) is high. But heat reclamation hasn’t been successfully implemented on a wide scale.

There are a variety of ways to convert heat into energy. One involves heat engines — mechanical devices like the Stirling engine. Others use thermoelectric materials to turn heat differences into electricity. But while the thermoelectric approaches are convenient — they have fewer moving parts, for starters — they’re generally less efficient, turning only 7 percent of the heat they use into electricity versus 20 percent for traditional heat engines.

More recently even greater advancements have appeared on the horizon. Spurred by high oil prices and breakthroughs in nano-level engineering, inventors are hard at work rethinking heat reclamation. Last February, University of Berkeley researchers combined organic molecules and metal at the nano level to generate heat from relatively cost-effective materials at smaller temperature differentials.

Back in November we profiled MIT Institute Professor Mildred S. Dresselhaus’ work in thermoelectric materials. And this January, super-soaker inventor and nuclear physicist Lonnie Johnson claimed a new approach that might reach as high as 60 percent efficiency under the right conditions.

More efficient engines should be the first step in transforming transportation, before electric vehicles and biofuels are seriously considered. If we can combine the car makers’ push for efficiency with advances in thermoelectrics and heat engines, we may be able to dramatically improve the efficiency of modern cars and cool off those tailpipes.

11 Comments

Heat Exchanging

On a larger scale, a heat recovery ventilator will replace the moist air with fresh air from outside that is dry. This happens using a fan to create a constant slow incoming flow of outdoor air while concurrently having an outward flow of indoor air that has become stale. In essence, fresh air is in constant supply as the allergens and other pollutants are regularly being escorted out.

Kurt E. Clothier

I am still a bit confused as to how this article actually fufills the title’s promise of “5 ways to reclaim engine heat…” All that was posted here is a bit of research which seems quite ineffective at the moment.

Web

Green energy is definitely the best solution in most cases. Technology like solar energy, wind power, fuel cells, zaps electric vehicles, EV hybrids, etc have come so far recently. Green energy even costs way less than oil and gas in many cases.

Robert

Reducing heat does make a significant improvement in engine efficiency. For combustable engines, you can use an engine flush to remove sludge and varnish and keep the engine clean by using good air, gas and oil filter. That along with a good synthetic oil can greatly reduce engine temperatures that will help with fuel mileage and engine protection.

Dr. No

OK, one can try to improve on a crappy process (IC) or use a less crappy process to begin with (Electric). But hey, if we would replace the IC engine with an electro engine, we would not need to service the car anymore, that would actually cause less cost, but also be bad for the economy.

Jim

It’s very hard to see how the expense of this technology could be justified if PHEVs can be made to work. If a PHEV IC engine is used 20-30% of the time, then the efficiency improvements therein are likewise diminished by 70-80%.

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