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Big Energy, Little Places

Researchers at Oklahoma University are finding big energy…in the smallest places. We visit with OU's Dr. McCann about these small energy sources.
Big Energy, Little Places

Heat such as this is potential energy

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University of Oklahoma -- College of Engineering
Phononic Devices
Oklahoma CareerTech -- Technology Education

Show Dates

Show 1212: Big Energy, Little Places

Air date: March 18, 2012

 

Transcript

Rob:  Well seen by many as the next industrial revolution, getting power from renewable resources could someday transform our economy.

Often called green energy for its environmental benefits, it could just as well be called green for the money it could generate.  And Oklahoma-based research is at the forefront of this technology revolution.

We begin today at the University of Oklahoma where an OU scientist is working at the nano-level, to convert heat into energy; an untapped resource worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

Researchers at the University of Oklahoma are looking for energy, all around us.

Overlooking campus, OU professor Patrick McCann says, we have long overlooked an abundant energy resource.

Patrick McCann:  Heat is available everywhere; it, it’s more available than sunlight for photovoltaic, it’s more available than wind for wind power.  Heat is available in power plants, it’s available in automobiles in the exhaust pipe, it’s even available right here on the OU campus in the smoke stack over there.

Rob:  According to the Engineering Professor, as much as 60% of generated energy is wasted; turned into heat that just radiates into the atmosphere.

McCann:  If we can capture just a portion of that we can have a new power supply that, that can be comparable to what we can generate with wind or solar.

Rob:  But in order to capture the energy, we need new materials, and that’s where a new state of the art, clean lab comes in.

Here scientists on the OU campus are working on the very smallest of levels.

Leonard Olona:  We need semi-conductor materials that can convert that heat efficiently to electrons, to electrical current that we can use to power our economy.

Rob:  And that is what scientists like Leonard Olona are working to find, converting heat into usable energy.

Olona:  This is where this whole process starts.  This is the beginning of the road.  This is the epitaxy, we are putting down thin layers of crystaline structures that take on thermal electric properties.  This is the beginning of the whole enchilada.

Rob:  A creation that takes a high powered machine.

Olona:  It takes an ultra high vacuum system.  It takes ultra-clean, it’s a ultra-clean environment, ultra-pure materials that you’re depositing onto the, to the wafer, it’s just precise control of the thicknesses.  I can control atoms of thickness that are being laid down, that are being evaporated and condensed under the surface; extreme finite control.

Rob:  And while the materials the OU researchers are developing will be new, the concept behind their development really isn’t.  Already the German automaker, BMW, uses a waste heat recovery system in their newer models to improve fuel economy.

But, the big difference with the work underway now at OU is that McCann and his fellow scientists are looking for some of the biggest energy savings from some of the smallest of places.

McCann:  It is happening, but it’s not happening as fast as we’d like it to happen.  And part of the reason is the efficiency and cost; that they’re using this old 40-year-old technology.  And again, there’s a lot of room for improvement using the same kind of techniques that have been used to make integrated circuits in Silicon Valley.

Rob:  Essentially creating an inexpensive energy source, that can work indefinite.

McCann:  This is the beginning, as I see it, of a new age of energy technology.  What we’re doing here is very similar to making a transistor.  Its solid state, no moving parts, no high vacuum; but it’s in the area of energy.  More efficient ways to produce energy, more efficient ways to use energy, that’s a much bigger opportunity business-wise.

Rob:  And apparently others agree.  A North Carolina-based company called Phononic Devices is combining OUs semi-conductor know-how with some California venture-capital investment to jump into the thermo-electric energy harvesting market.  An industry already valued at close to 125 billion dollars.

Additionally, last fall McCann was awarded a three million dollar grant from the Department of Energy.  One he believes will help him develop a proof-of-concept prototype within two years.