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."