If your next change of car is due in 2020, the new model you drive away from the dealership should boast some revolutionary features that will change forever the way vehicles use energy.

That’s the conclusion in Philip Ball’s article Thermoelectric heat recovery could boost auto fuel economy from the latest Energy Quarterly (EQ) section in the June 2013 issue of MRS Bulletin. With guidance from Feature Editor Thierry Caillat of NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, EQ interviewed the scientists at the forefront of the fast-emerging field of thermoelectrics for use in engines and concluded that the future is nearer than we think.

Thermoelectrics (TE) could soon be powering your car’s air conditioning, lights, windows, and the electric doors, platforms, and hydraulics in transportation and construction vehicles. Energy now wasted in automobiles in the form of heat (only a third of a US gallon of fuel is currently converted to power a car and its systems) could be transformed directly into electrical energy by TE generators installed in the car’s exhaust system. 

Prototype TE systems have already been demonstrated by General Motors, BMW, and Ford, while Volkswagen and Daimler-Benz are also working on designs.

One of the factors driving the interest in TE is the rising standards for fuel efficiency in Europe. By 2020, the average fuel consumption of all new cars must be at least 25 km/l (70 miles per US gallon). The costs of research and development may be high but the costs of carbon-emissions penalties may be even higher, so car makers are getting on with the job. 

And they have reason to be optimistic. NASA has recently reported TE conversion efficiencies of up to 15% while generating energy for spacecraft. If similar efficiencies could be achieved for the smaller temperatures generated in cars, capturing 5-10% of a vehicle’s waste heat by TEs could reduce fuel consumption by 3-6%. This would yield big savings in both costs and emissions.

In the same issue of MRS Bulletin, an interview with Google’s new Vice-President for Energy Arun Majumdar gives his take on the energy challenges facing the US and, speaking about the automobile industry, gives his opinion that developing economies may have a lot to teach the longer-industrialized nations, burdened with legacy systems that make starting with a ‘clean sheet’ impossible.

Read both articles for free until July 31, 2013 here: http://journals.cambridge.org/MRSEnergy.

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