Department of Energy

On the Road with ARPA-E

September 23, 2010

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ARPA-E Director Dr. Arun Majumdar and MSU Project Lead Dr. Norbert Mueller test the wave disk engine.

ARPA-E Director Dr. Arun Majumdar and MSU Project Lead Dr. Norbert Mueller test the wave disk engine.

Auto enthusiasts should be forewarned that this post may make you jealous. I say that because earlier this month I traveled to Michigan to visit two projects ARPA-E is currently funding – one at Michigan State University (MSU), the second at General Motors (GM), and got an up close look at several innovative transportation-related energy advancements.

While at MSU, I had the op portunity to tour the facility where the wave disk engine is being developed. The new generator, which is compact in size (about the size of a cooking pot in fact,) will make better use of automobile fuel. How? Well, currently about 75-80 percent of automobile fuel is wasted, meaning that only 20-25 percent of fuel is actually used for propulsion. This generator will use 60 percent for propulsion – that’s as much as a 200% increase in efficiency.

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The compact size of the generator also means it will replace nearly 1,000 lbs. of engine, transmission, cooling system, emissions, and fluids. What that really translates into is that automobile companies will be able to produce lighter, more fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles. If successful, this project will significantly increase fuel consumption efficiency, reduce automobile emissions by up to 90 percent, substantially decrease U.S. imports of fossil fuels from foreign sources and create new jobs.

After seeing the engine in action and meeting with the team at MSU, I was back on the road and headed to see the “Lightweight Thermal Energy Recovery (LighTER) Systems” project at GM.

This project is using ARPA-E funding to develop a system for recovering waste heat in automobiles. Simply put, by recovering the waste heat, GM will increase fuel economy of their vehicles. The new system will utilize shape memory alloys (SMAs), which are deformed by heat and return to their original form at cooler temperatures. GM will combine SMAs with mechanical designs to achieve a tenfold improvement in power generation compared to existing technologies. This project has potentially unlimited application. Its applicability extends to heat sources in transportation, homes, buildings and the natural world – anywhere a heat differential exists a LighTER system could be installed to generate useful energy. If successful, this project could increase vehicle fuel efficiency by up to 10 percent and reduce annual fuel consumption in the United States by up to 380 million barrels. 

The goal of ARPA-E is to fund high risk, high reward projects that have the potential to be real game changers in the energy landscape. It’s inspiring to meet with teams such as the ones at MSU and GM whose work reinforces that ARPA-E is funding projects with real signs of success.

To learn more about the innovative projects ARPA-E is currently funding please visit our program overview site.

Dr. Arun Majumdar is the Director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.