Thermoelectrics can help your car generate electricity from its tailpipe

Researchers at Ohio State have have invented a new material that could help cars become more fuel efficient by converting the heat produced by the engine into electricity. The concept of producing electricity from heat, called thermoelectrics, has been around for awhile, but the researchers, led by Joseph Heremans and Vladimir Jovovic at Ohio State University, have come up with a material that is twice as efficient at doing this as anything that currently exists. Even better, is that this new material, which consists of lead telluride with tiny amounts of thallium added, seems to work best at temperatures between 450 and 950 degrees Fahrenheit, which is what you would see in a car engine.

Thermoelectric material installed in the cryogenic instrument used for testing © Emily Burkhart and Vladimir Jovovic, Ohio State University

While the team is working on increasing the efficiency of this material even more, they feel that the current level of efficiency could increase gas mileage by about 10% for all cars – the thermoelectric device could directly replace a car’s alternator, for example. The electricity produced could also be used to recharge a hybrid’s batteries. Any mass production of resulting thermoelectric devices is probably about 5 years away.

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