• Nov 2, 2009

General Motors has been awarded $2.7 million by the Department of Energy to create a working prototype engine using Shape Memory Alloys (SMA). The idea is for the prototype to use SMA tech to capture heat energy from engine exhaust gasses via an electric generator and transfer that energy to recharge batteries for hybrids or electric vehicles.

SMA tech can also theoretically power electronic devices like power seats and windows in a standard gas- or diesel-powered car, perhaps even replacing the power-sapping alternator. The GM press release, which is pasted after the jump, doesn't go into much depth explaining how memory alloys work, but the basic principle is easy to understand.

"When you heat up a stretched SMA wire, it shrinks back to its pre-stretched length, and when it cools back down it becomes less stiff and can revert to the original shape" said Jan Aase, director of GM's Vehicle Development Research Laboratory. "A loop of this wire could be used to drive an electric generator to charge a battery."

While $2.7 million isn't a lot of coin in the realm of GM finances (the General seemed to shed about $2.7 million every ten minutes pre-bankruptcy) the grant was significant in that it was the only monies awarded by the DoE given to an automaker. GM is working with partners from outside the auto industry to make the concept a reality, a practice that the General says is imperative to get breakthroughs like this to market. No timetable was given as to when GM's SMA concept would see the light of day.

[Source: GM]

PRESS RELEASE:


o Department of Energy Awards GM $2.7 Million Create Prototype with Partners
o Latest Example of Collaborative R&D Model to Speed Commercialization

WARREN, Mich. -- The day is coming when the heat from your car's engine exhaust is captured and converted to mechanical energy capable of powering your vehicle's stereo, power seats and air conditioning.

General Motors R&D received a $2.7 million federal award Monday that will help build a prototype using Shape Memory Alloy, or SMA, that would generate electricity from the heat in automotive exhaust.

"When you heat up a stretched SMA wire, it shrinks back to its pre-stretched length, and when it cools back down it becomes less stiff and can revert to the original shape" said Jan Aase, director of GM's Vehicle Development Research Laboratory. "A loop of this wire could be used to drive an electric generator to charge a battery."

It is too soon to identify a vehicle where this technology could work, but hybrid or conventionally powered vehicles are possible applications.

"No one else anywhere in the world is doing this work as far as we know," Aase said. "In a hybrid system, the electrical energy could be used to charge the battery. In a conventional engine, this could perhaps even replace the alternator without any load on the engine."

The award from the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Program Agency – Energy, or ARPA-E, was the only grant to an automaker among $151 million in distributed by the DOE. GM will work with HRL Laboratories; Dynalloy, Inc., a Tustin, CA manufacturer of shape memory alloys specially made to be used as actuators, and the Smart Materials Collaborative Research Lab at the University of Michigan.

"This award is significant for the gains in energy efficiency it could bring, and because it signifies how GM is doing business though collaboration and partnership," said Alan Taub, GM vice president of global R&D.

"The days are gone when we would do this kind of groundbreaking work on our own. We need to continue to find ways to combine our deep technical knowledge with others who can help take our ideas from concept to commercialization," he said.

The idea of an SMA heat engine "has been around for 30 years," Aase said, but the few devices that have been built were too large and too inefficient to make it worthwhile."

Even now, the technology is in the very early stages. Over the next two years, GM and its partners will work to create a working prototype.

"We're taking advantage of a network of people that we've been working with for a number of years on shape memory alloys," Aase said. "And we have some novel approaches to make this high-risk, high return project successful."


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 27 Comments
      • 5 Years Ago
      Why would you waste exhaust heat energy on a complex, irritating to maintain system which more or less does nothing but augment an alternator when you could run it through a turbine to drive a compressor to increase the mass of air in the intake charge of the engine? This is particularly baffling coming from GM since they are well aware of this 'turbocharger' technology and have employed it to great effect on their ecotec.

      Dear GM, stop wasting engineering effort on this stuff and give us that new turbodiesel you've been developing, fit direct injection to the LSx engines, and, I dunno, maybe build a replacement Kappa so that you have something useful to do with the aforementioned turbo Ecotec.
        • 5 Years Ago
        I believe this is for even lower-grade waste heat than a turbocharger can make use of. i.e., after the turbocharger. Plus this has advantages in that it can be used for more than just motive force. All the turbocharger in the world isn't going to help you find energy to run hotel loads. Think of idling at a stoplight, this can usefully recover energy there whereas a turbocharger cannot.
        • 5 Years Ago
        My engine generates sufficient energy via alternator. I neither need nor want a SECOND electricity generation system on my engine. There's already enough wiring, thanks.
      • 5 Years Ago
      The comparisons to RTGs and BMW's system derived from steam engines is apt. But to me, this feels more like a Stirling engine. For decades, people have wanted to try to generate energy from (relatively) low-grade waste heat, and invariably they have to turn to a Stirling engine to try to do it. The only problem being that Stirling engines don't really work well enough.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Another way to subsidize Government Motors....
      • 5 Years Ago
      Can we PLEASE add another layer of complexity? "$2.7 million isn't a lot of coin in the realm of GM finances" - 2.6 M will go to free "pep" cars and gas and a building full of paper shuffles and political gamers. More "smoke and mirrors" in the government bureau.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Actually you are right - many folks peed at GM. My grandpa came from the coal mines in Pennsylvania in 1915 to work at "Chevy in the Hole". My dad worked for GM for 40 years. Myself I am in the technology field in a non-automotive area.

        GM let the unions get too powerful in the '70s and '80s.
        GM has always favored their corporate politics over product - evidence is market share.
        GM allowed themselves to get so messed up financially - evidence is government takeover.

        Having been an automotive enthusiast for my whole life I find it very sad that this once great private enterprise has become a government bureau. I have owned many GM products and have some still - but would never buy another - except maybe a Corvette or Suburban. But alas I feel I have to restrain myself from that due to my distaste for social liberalism.

        So yes someone peed - in fact - many many have shat.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Thanks for your moronic guesses - but you are wrong on all counts.
        • 5 Years Ago
        I highly doubt it. People that hate for hate's sake are easy to predict and therefor, read. Someone at GM peed in your Happy Water, and Hell hath no fury like TonyInMI scorned.

        Thanks for playing.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Damn I had that idea :(

      I saw some video on youtube about SMA engines and thought "well why couldn't you put that in line with the exhaust system of a car? tons of lost heat there"

      Should have capitalized on the idea :P
      • 5 Years Ago
      The comparisons to RTGs and BMW's system derived from steam engines is apt. But to me, this feels more like a Stirling engine. For decades, people have wanted to try to generate energy from (relatively) low-grade waste heat, and invariably they have to turn to a Stirling engine to try to do it. The only problem being that Stirling engines don't really work well enough.

      This could be a great system if it works. You could put one on your clothes dryer too and recover some of that lost energy.

      $2.7M seems pretty reasonable, I'm sure the DoE throws amounts similar to $2.7M at universities for research projects pretty frequently too.
        • 5 Years Ago
        If you want to call it another bailout, you can. It's government money, plain and simple.

        Personally, given that it's in line with the kind of money handed out for other research programs, I don't view it as a bailout any more than research grants to universities are bailouts to our schools.

        It's not like this money is for day-to-day operations (like the billions given to GM last year and this) or for core business (like the DoE $5.9B loan to Ford), so I view it a little differently. But I cannot deny the facts which lead others to say it is otherwise.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Wait, so GM is getting another bailout?

        Matt, LS7, please explain. I mean, didnt GM just say they didnt need any more government money? Whats with the additional bailout money?
      • 5 Years Ago
      I've long believed that waste heat is a potential treasure-trove of energy, if only we could find some reasonable (ie, cheap and simple) way of tapping it. I'm pleased to see GM pursuing this.
        • 5 Years Ago
        From the looks of it though, there is no change in the exhaust flow, so it means no exhaust restrictions, and no power being robbed unlike the application of catalytic converters and such.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Oh....

        Like some sort of turbine system or something...

        Oh, wait.

        That is already done. A turbocharger.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Could use the electrical power to recharge batteries for Tazers so people can be held in GM sales offices until they buy something.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Why would they need that? GM still sells more cars here than any other manufacturer as it is.

        I know you were attempting a lame joke, but when the facts are so against you on it, it just isn't funny.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Oh well Matt, I see GM has received yet ANOTHER bailout (or normal logic would suggest that it is a loan that will be paid back, like the one given to Ford, who happens to have reported a PROFITABLE 3RD QURARTER!!! Market share up 2.2% YEAHHHHHHH)
        • 5 Years Ago
        Just kidding guys, I was using Matt's logic, I guess nobody got it... so... nevermind.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Didn't BMW already develop something like this?
      • 5 Years Ago
      I ain't space craft engineer.... But you adding a small power(I doubt this generator will pull out more than 5 % increase in power) and a weight is gonna make no difference.... cause we all know if the vehicle is hevier thus it needs more fuel to move it ahead...
      I am still thinking of lotus evora as somthiing everymanufacturer suppose to go to, but lotus is expensive and aren't the prettiest car in my opinion.....
        • 5 Years Ago
        Exactly. When I first started reading it, it sounded like a RTG. Radioisotope thermoelectric generators are what deep space probes use to generate electricity for operation. Not exactly the Hoover Dam of power generation. Same concept.
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