US Energy Dept. funds Yale proposal

Two Yale professors want to generate power by using a currently untapped energy source  — wasted heat in the atmosphere caused by machines.

Yale chemical and environmental engineering professors Menachem Elimelech and Chinedum Osuji, along with Colorado School of Mines engineering professor Tzahi Cath, recently won $2.6 million in funding from the U.S Department of Energy’s “Open 2012” program. The program funds sustainable projects that reduce energy use or use innovative forms of energy.

Elimelech, Osuji and Cath proposed creating a power generation system using water and waste heat — heat produced by industrial or chemical processes that escapes into the atmosphere. They have recommended using this latent energy source from geothermal wells, industrial facilities and power plants.

The proposed system will contain two streams of water, one dilute and one concentrated, separated by a membrane. Water will flow via osmosis from the dilute into the concentrated stream, and this water flow will generate energy that will eventually be converted into electrical energy. Since the system is closed-loop, the same water will be used again and again, conserving water.

“The nice thing about this project is that we don’t need large quantities of water,” Cath said. “[The water] is continuously recirculated into the system.”

Using waste heat as the system’s energy source has the potential to cut electricity costs, Cath said. “We don’t need people to generate [energy] for us. We are going to use heat that people don’t need instead of letting it go into the atmosphere.”

The Advanced Research Projects Agency — Energy, which administered the funding for the “Open 2012” program, touts the proposal as a “highly innovative and promising technology.”

“We hope that Yale’s project will spur just the sort of breakthrough that is needed to convert wasted energy into usable power,” said Pramod Khargonekar, deputy director for technology of the ARPA-E. Khargonekar said the ARPA-E hopes the funding will “catapult the project forward and put it on the potential path to commercialization.”

Cath said they view the funding as an opportunity to demonstrate that the technology is viable and hope to solicit interest and investments from companies in the coming years.

Elimelech said the government funding will be used to support graduate students and postdocs, purchase equipment and lab supplies, and construct lab and field-scale prototypes. The three-member engineering team is currently working on developing membranes and incorporating all the technologies proposed into one single machine. They are also in the process of collaborating with companies that employ the technologies used in the project. Although Yale and the Colorado School of Mines have lent their facilities for the system’s development, they are not funding the project.

The engineering team will be required to submit quarterly progress reports to the Department of Energy as part of the funding negotiations.