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Finding New Energy Sources in Unlikely Places

August 11, 2010

One of the fun things about working in the renewable energy sector is reading about, and talking to people with, interesting ideas on how to find endless supplies of energy. A common thread to all of this is the solutions usually need unique materials joining assistance, and thus a great fit for collaborating with truly out-of-the-box thinkers and tinkerers. Perhaps one of the most ambitious plans is to pave the US roadway system with solar panels.


Solar Roadways is working on just that. Working on the facts that a tremendous amount of sunlight falls on the earth and is never used as an energy source, that many roadways are in need of replacement, and that a more durable road surface might be economical, Scot Brusaw has developed a prototype panel that not only collects and converts sunlight, but also can be used to communicate to drivers via embedded LEDs. In spite of a trillion dollar price tag to cover the US, Scott is moving ahead with demonstrating the technology. Could this work? Maybe, but it’s great to see open minded thinking to develop new energy sources. To succeed a number of materials challenges will have to be overcome: sealing out moisture, improving impact toughness, making the surface with sufficient traction in all weather, and so on. These are the types of questions we answer at the EWI Energy Center and allow innovators to go from concept to production reality.


Solar Roadway Panel


Perhaps a more grounded approach is to harvest heat from manufacturing processes and vehicle exhaust to generate electricity. ARPA-E awarded General Motors and its collaborators funds to take advantage of unique material properties of shape memory alloys (SMA) to do just that. “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.” These materials are difficult to work with, but innovation does not succeed without a little R&D perspiration and gifted engineers will see these and countless other obstacles through in the quest for better energy utilization.


Example of Automotive Heat Recovery


So, it seems no idea is too far fetched, and all are worthy of some consideration. Let us know how the EWI Energy Center can help you bring your energy solution closer to reality.

Kevin Arnold, PE

Business Development Manager

EWI Energy Center