Start-up company aims to harness the full potential of producing electricity from waste heat

Sep 02, 2010 by Lisa Zyga report
A coal power plant in Datteln, Germany, that transforms chemical energy into 36%-48% electricity and the remaining 52%-64% into waste heat. Image credit: Arnold Paul. Wikimedia Commons.

(PhysOrg.com) -- Matt Scullin co-founded Alphabet Energy just one year ago, but already the CEO has ambitions of turning the San Francisco-based start-up company into the "Intel of waste heat." By harnessing the waste heat emitted by power plants, industrial furnaces, and cars, Alphabet Energy envisions that it could provide inexpensive electricity to the US grid by recycling waste heat on a much larger scale than currently exists.

Currently, more than two-thirds of the fuel used to generate power in the United States is lost as heat, according to a 2008 report from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The goal of cogeneration technology is to convert this into electric and thermal power. Although the idea has been around for more than a century, the US produces only about 9% of its power from cogeneration systems. In comparison, many European countries use cogeneration systems for a significantly larger portion of their , with Denmark producing more than 50% of its power using waste heat recovery systems. In the US, the Department of Energy has a goal for recycled waste heat to account for 20% of US electricity production by 2030.

Alphabet Energy's strength lies in its recent development of a thermoelectric chip that can be inserted into a wide variety of exhaust flues, engines, or other heat-producing devices to convert the waste heat into electricity. As heat essentially pushes electrons through the material, the device can be connected to the grid to feed in the electricity in real time. As the company explains, the device's key advantage is the novel material - a relatively abundant, low-cost material that has been modified by researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to lower its and increase its electricity output using a smaller amount of heat. Another advantage is that the thermoelectric chip is produced using similar methods used for producing the microchips used in electronic devices, which should lower production costs.

These improvements may allow Alphabet Energy to lower the cost of installing the system to less than half that of current systems, to under $1 per watt. At this cost, and depending on the properties of the heat generation system, the system could deliver a payback time of two to four years. In addition, since electricity generated from waste heat is 100% clean energy, Alphabet estimates that its technology will be able to offset more than 500 million tonnes of carbon annually.

Alphabet Energy plans on performing a pilot test at an industrial facility next year, and may start commercialization in 2012. One of the challenges the company faces is that waste heat is one of the few power sources that the US government does not currently subsidize. However, recently a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Democratic Representative Paul Tonko of New York have introduced a bill that would offer a 30% tax credit for installing waste heat recovery systems in industrial environments.

Alphabet Energy estimates that the technology for waste heat recovery systems could comprise a $200 billion global market. Other US companies are also working on waste heat recovery techniques, from small start-ups to corporations including General Motors and General Electric. Besides heat from factories and , future systems could also harness the heat from laptop computers and cell phones, although that technology is still in development.

Explore further: Intel wireless charging in a bowl coming sooner than later

More information: Alphabet Energy
via: National Geographic

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User comments : 19

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AkiBola
5 / 5 (8) Sep 02, 2010
Put one of these on top of the US Congress and those blowhards will power the whole galaxy.
gunslingor1
3.8 / 5 (5) Sep 02, 2010
This technology is absolutely nothing new, just build to a larger scale. The device has to be very similar to a Peltier Cooler or a Thermocouple. They all generate very small amounts of current (thermocouples generate sub milliamps, sub millivoltages. to generate with the device, you have to have a temperature gradient. The greater the gradient the more energy, which means you'll probably have to circulate cooling water to the device.

heat recovery is great, but this isn't the best way to do it. That cooler water previously mentioned could be used as preheated water, but most of this is alrady covered in the stack.. Plus, the build up of soot on the devices will make them highly ineffective.

Combustion Turbines should be made illegal unless they are combined cycle, using the wasted combustion heat to turn a second steam turbine doubling output. This should be a much higher priority.

Just go nuclear guys. Notice thier website tells you nothing of their device, ponzi scheme.
Modernmystic
4.3 / 5 (4) Sep 02, 2010
If anyone is TRULY concerned about the environment, about the economy, and about stopping the flow of billions of dollars to the hands of bloodthirsty fanatics mired in the 14th century then YES go nuclear.

Hand out nuclear power plant permits so fast you have trouble printing them to keep up, because that is the ONLY realistic way your going to fix those problems in the foreseeable future.
lengould100
4.5 / 5 (4) Sep 02, 2010
Certainly hope they've got a peltier junction element which is more efficient than the 2% to 3% efficiency at 50C cold 150C hot, units marketed by CryoTherm, the Russian company who appear to be the current leader in the field. They'll need to improve that efficiency by something like a factor of x5 or x10 before there's anything interesting here beyond dedicated special-purpose applications.

http://www.kryoth...l?tid=47

GSwift7
4.8 / 5 (4) Sep 02, 2010
The only purpose of this story is in regard to the aforementioned government subsidies, which indicates that this tech is not yet fiscally viable. Red flags all over the place on this story.
fmfbrestel
5 / 5 (5) Sep 02, 2010
I sort of agree, but the point of the subsidies is only to level the playing field with every other energy source. Much better solution would be to eliminate ALL energy related subsidies (including those to the oil and coal companies) and let the market chose. Subsidies just endlessly confuse the market and actually chill development because they cannot be counted on to not expire.
Slim934
1.7 / 5 (9) Sep 02, 2010
To Gunlingorr1: There is absolutely nothing wrong with burning fossil fuels to generate power. The idea that the "environment" has some sort of intrinsic value outside of what human beings (who are the originators of all value) say it is fallacious.

To Modernmystic: Your post makes no sense. It MAY make sense in Europe because I do not really know how much of their energy comes from where. In the US, oil (which is the only real resource which fuels those ninnies) only makes up about 10% of our generation capacity and that is likely to drop in the future anyway.

To GSwift7: I thought the exact same thing when I saw "biggest challenge is no subsidies" if your technology were so bloody good then you wouldn't need them. Private investors would be throwing money at you. It clearly must not be very good.
Modernmystic
1.3 / 5 (6) Sep 02, 2010
Sllim,

First of all 10% of our generation capacity is a LOT of money to be giving fanatics. Are you REALLY that thick?

Secondly we're going to run out of coal and oil at some point. I don't believe in global warming, and I totally agree with you that nature has no intrinsic value whatsoever, but we've been a fire culture for about a million years...it's time to move on. Moreover with the continued advance of civilization we're going to be needing more and more energy, fission, and in the long run fusion are the only two viable options at the moment.

Eric_B
4.4 / 5 (7) Sep 02, 2010
"nature has no intrinsic value whatsoever"

Am I missing some implied meaning behind this statement?

Is clean, potable water in any way unnatural? Naturally drinkable water economically dominates over the costs of desalination and distillation, doesn't it?

Your arguement is equal to saying that education has no intrisic value becuae it is nearly impossible to analyze the cost/benefit for every individual in society, weigh that agaisnt the high-school education level vs. earnings of someone like Michael Jackson.

The free market also allows one to step into a booth in Mexico City and pay to get a dose of clean air.

It would be an easier argument to make that human life has no intrinsic value as most of us consume resources and create toxic waste more often that we create anything with added value.

Human life and everything on this planet has some intrinsic value as it all comes from nature.

Nature's value IS intrinsic and immeasurable.

"My two cents."
fmfbrestel
2 / 5 (6) Sep 02, 2010
wanting to advance just to satisfy your ego is a pretty bad reason to advance. Secondly, its not as if the oil and coal are just going to suddenly dissapear, there will be a gradual decrease in reserves and production -- prices will rise a little, alternative energy will come one line due to higher prices, and it will all be very natural and smooth. LET THE MARKET DEAL WITH ITS OWN PROBLEMS
fmfbrestel
5 / 5 (4) Sep 02, 2010
Nothing has intrinsic value because value is a human thought construction --- well, thinking may have intrinsic value, since thinking derives value... however, I believe that nature has a pretty dang high approval rating none the less.
Modernmystic
2 / 5 (3) Sep 02, 2010
Nature has no value apart from human beings. Value is a human concept. Therefore any "value" nature has is totally extrinsic and tied to human beings.

Drinkable water has value to human beings and is therefore valuable in that sense, otherwise it's just a more pure form of H2O...nothing more or less.
Modernmystic
2.3 / 5 (4) Sep 02, 2010
wanting to advance just to satisfy your ego is a pretty bad reason to advance.


I agree, were you making some kind of point?

Secondly, its not as if the oil and coal are just going to suddenly dissapear, there will be a gradual decrease in reserves and production -- prices will rise a little, alternative energy will come one line due to higher prices, and it will all be very natural and smooth. LET THE MARKET DEAL WITH ITS OWN PROBLEMS


It takes time to build nuclear reactors...and how do you know it will all be "natural and gradual"? Are you psychic?

The market is notorious for spinning on a dime and waiting till the last minute. Have you been on a desert island the past couple of years?

You go right ahead and assume things will go smooth when the last drop of oil is taken out of the ground. Meanwhile the grown ups will plan for the future...mkay.
fmfbrestel
4.7 / 5 (3) Sep 02, 2010
The STOCK market spins on a dime because it is dominated by semi-intelligent self-guiding algorithms that trade massive volumes of stock faster then a human stock broker can raise his hand.

The supply of coal and oil on the other hand is a function of natural processes and human engineering. Proven reserves (not yet being mined) of coal in the US will last us for at least another century. Oil might start slowing down earlier, but its not like the oil is going to be there on Tuesday and be all gone on Wednesday. It doesnt take a psychic to understand natural resource supply.

We will NEVER take the last drop of oil, it will never DISAPPEAR, it will just become more expensive then alternatives. And we will have a pretty good idea of when that will happen before it does. When it does happen, a crap tonne of private money will flow into the next cheapest energy source, and the economy will march on.

Quit with the fearmongering.
dirk_bruere
5 / 5 (1) Sep 02, 2010
"...the device's key advantage is the novel material - a relatively abundant, low-cost material..."
WHAT material????
Newbeak
5 / 5 (1) Sep 02, 2010
How about running Cyclone Power Technologies new heat engine with waste heat? Their efficiency is in the 30 % range. See: http://www.cyclonepower.com/
Andragogue
not rated yet Sep 03, 2010
I find this statement to be very wrong: "In addition, since electricity generated from waste heat is 100% clean energy, Alphabet estimates that its technology will be able to offset more than 500 million tonnes of carbon annually." Just where does the waste heat come from? Unless it's nuclear-reactor-generated, the process generating the waste heat will be producing carbon emissions. Reduce the carbon, and you reduce the waste heat and that reduces the production of electricity by this method. Energy must be balanced regardless of form: there still ain't no such thing as perpetual motion, mechanical nor otherwise.
Newbeak
not rated yet Sep 03, 2010
I find this statement to be very wrong: "In addition, since electricity generated from waste heat is 100% clean energy, Alphabet estimates that its technology will be able to offset more than 500 million tonnes of carbon annually." Just where does the waste heat come from? Unless it's nuclear-reactor-generated, the process generating the waste heat will be producing carbon emissions. Reduce the carbon, and you reduce the waste heat and that reduces the production of electricity by this method. Energy must be balanced regardless of form: there still ain't no such thing as perpetual motion, mechanical nor otherwise.

What they are trying to say is that any energy recovered from the waste heat is clean energy in the sense that you are using heat that would otherwise be wasted,even though the coal/oil/gas producing the heat is dirty energy.
Noumenon
5 / 5 (43) Sep 14, 2010
The STOCK market spins on a dime because it is dominated by semi-intelligent self-guiding algorithms that trade massive volumes of stock faster then a human stock broker can raise his hand.

The supply of coal and oil on the other hand is a function of natural processes and human engineering. Proven reserves (not yet being mined) of coal in the US will last us for at least another century. Oil might start slowing down earlier, but its not like the oil is going to be there on Tuesday and be all gone on Wednesday. It doesnt take a psychic to understand natural resource supply.

We will NEVER take the last drop of oil, it will never DISAPPEAR, it will just become more expensive then alternatives. And we will have a pretty good idea of when that will happen before it does. When it does happen, a crap tonne of private money will flow into the next cheapest energy source, and the economy will march on.

Quit with the fearmongering.


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