Alphabet Energy is a startup that has a a thermoelectric chip that can be inserted into any exhaust flue or engine to convert heat into electrical power.
lphabet says its innovation is in both the choice of material and proprietary technology that gives it low thermal conductivity, and makes it highly suitable for both scale and miniaturization—for use in small devices as well as in large factory flues. The device is connected by wire to the plant’s electrical system or to the grid, so it feeds in power converted by heat in real time. Only a year old, Alphabet has the ambitious goal of leading what it believes could be a $200 billion global market for technology at the core of waste heat recovery systems.
Alphabet says its chip is produced in a way that’s similar to how microchips for electronic devices are made. Tapping into the semiconductor industry’s economies of scale will allow the company to slash costs enough to install its systems for “well under $1 a watt,” said Scullin, compared to installation costs double or triple that amount for some competing waste heat recapture systems.
Depending on the flow rate, chemical composition, and temperatures of the exhaust coming out of an industrial flue, he said, Alphabet’s technology could deliver a payback time of two to four years for a manufacturer.
According to Scullin, Alphabet plans to complete a pilot installation at an industrial facility with a large waste heat source next year, with an aim of winning commercial customers by 2012. So far, most of the potential customers in discussion with Alphabet are multinational corporations
Recycled Energy Development (RED) aims to retrofit large factories to convert waste heat into electricity and useful thermal energy (typically steam or hot water), and then sell it to the grid, host, or nearby facilities.
Cogeneration (also called combined heat and power) systems, can generate electricity or mechanical power and useful heat at a facility that requires thermal energy, or convert waste energy on-site into electricity and mechanical energy. In 2008, the Oak Ridge researchers reported that the 3,300 cogeneration sites in the United States accounted for nearly 9 percent of the country’s total electricity generating capacity, and called for a push to raise that to 20 percent by 2030—a level already exceeded by some European countries. Cogeneration accounted in 2008 for more than half of total national power production in Denmark, nearly 40 percent in Finland and more than 30 percent in Russia, according to the Oak Ridge report.
One reason the U.S. trails much of the pack in tapping power from waste heat, said Casten, is that regulations generally bar utilities from reaping financial rewards from efficiency gains—they’re required to pass the savings along to rate-payers, robbing of them of the incentive to invest. In addition, higher taxes on energy in the European Union make energy efficiency and conservation more valuable, said Casten.