NASA tech that converts heat into electricity may recharge your car battery one day

A sample of skutterudite.
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It’s probably something you learned in grade school: when energy is transformed from one form to another, a whole lot of it is lost to heat. But what if there was a material that could funnel that waste back into the system for reuse? Heat from exhausts could charge the car battery, for one, and industrial processes responsible for generating a lot of heat — fabricators of ceramic and glass, for example — could become a little less reliant on the power grid. Enter the thermoelectric materials from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The materials, which NASA has licensed to NY-based fabricator Evident Technologies, are minerals called skutterudites. Primarily composed of cobalt with variable amounts of nickel and iron, their chemical makeup is well-suited to converting heat to electricity. They’ve been historically difficult to produce quickly and cheaply, but NASA’s discovered a commercially viable way to make them at scale.

It helped that NASA’s no stranger to the materials. The agency’s long history with skutterudites began at the dawn of spaceflight; scientists, forced to find alternative power sources for travel in areas absent of sunlight, settled on thermoelectrics. Voyager 1 and 2, in fact, rely on radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), or components that convert heat from radioactive decays into electricity, for energy. Both are still in operation, 35 years after their launches.

Evident Technologies plans for the technology are a little more terrestrial. “We feel that there is an unmet need for customers who want to convert high-temperature heat into electricity,” said Clint Ballinger, CEO of Evident Technologies. “We are excited to capitalize on these NASA advances and plan to launch commercial products very soon.”

Very soon, in this case, means about three months. That’s a pretty fast turnaround, and an exciting development for a broad swatch of industries. Longer-lasting hybrids, anyone?

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