It costs a small fortune to fill up the car with petrol these days. It’s not just the price of oil that makes it so expensive. It’s also our inefficient engines that are letting us down. The other day I read a depressing article: “Despite their popularity, traditional internal combustion engines offer low efficiencies – for every litre of fuel placed into the engine, most will only convert up to 30% into usable work.”
While some hunt for new sources of energy to fill our petrol tanks and keep our lights burning, some of the smarter minds are trying to make better use of the energy we do have. Working with researchers at the universities of Oxford, Swansea, Durham and Loughborough, AltEnergis is a business that may be a new name to you. But if its plans for a listing on the Alternative Investment Market in the next two to three years come to fruition, you may hear a lot more about it.
AltEnergis is involved in several interesting projects in the field of energy efficiency that it believes are ripe for commercialisation.
Introducing the turbo-charger
The deficiencies of the internal combustion engine is just one area of interest. Here, AltEnergis has a new concept based on the traditional turbo-charger. This is a pump driven by exhaust gases that forces more air into the internal combustion engine, allowing it to burn more fuel and produce more power.
AltEnergis is developing a turbo-discharger which works a little differently. It uses the energy recoverable by the turbine to depressurise the exhaust system. This reduces the engine pumping work and hot residual gases in the cylinder, in turn improving fuel efficiency. In tests, turbo-discharging has demonstrated a fuel economy benefit of up to 6% and a 7% torque increase.
Next AltEnergis is tackling a problem that blights the wind power industry. Despite the unpredictability of the wind, this source of power is favoured by politicians and is becoming increasingly commonplace. But a common problem area is the gearbox within the turbine.
Current gearbox monitoring systems are unable to provide any advance warnings of failure, and the cost of shinnying up wind towers and fixing faults is high – especially when these masts are out at sea.
AltEnergis has come up with a novel system that can spot early signs of trouble. It believes that this can increase reliability and lower maintenance costs for wind power operators, while it also sees other potential applications, for example, in the helicopter gearbox market – “where the technology could help save lives”.
AltEnergis’s projects look for gaps in the commercial market
A fascinating and growing area of renewable energy is piezoelectricity. This is the charge that accumulates in materials such as crystals, ceramics and bone in response to mechanical strain. Applications for piezoelectric devices include nano- and micro-energy generation in medical instruments and vehicle monitoring sensors.
Piezoelectricity may conceivably allow phones to never run out of charge because they could harvest the energy from movement. Similarly, street lights may be powered through the vibrations caused by pedestrians and traffic.
However, while piezoelectric crystals generate electricity when mechanical oscillations occur at or near their resonant frequency, they do not generate electricity from rotational vibrations. By isolating the left and right sides of the crystal, AltEnergis has come up with a way of capturing this potential energy source.
AltEnergis is also working on a hydro-turbine. The principle here is simple. It is often necessary to reduce the pressure in water pipes through the use of pressure release valves. The energy that is thus captured in these valves is wasted, but AltEnergis has come up with a method of harvesting this energy. This could generate localised electricity by turning water pipes into mini hydro-electric power plants.
Finally, AltEnergis is working to improve energy production from biofuels. First generation biofuels, which are made from sugar, starch or vegetable oil, are now being superseded by a second generation material that uses non-edible cellulose.
Conversion of cellulose into bioethanol is achieved through fermentation caused by yeast. AltEnergis has two separate technologies, each of which offers significant improvements in the yield of ethanol production during the manufacturing process.
One is an additive that stimulates the production of ethanol in Zymomonas mobilis, a micro-organism that has certain advantages for the production of ethanol fuel in comparison with popular ethanol-producing yeast. AltEnergis claims that it could enhance the ethanol yield by more than 50%.
The second technology seeks to capture ethanol from fructans, which cannot be digested by yeast cells without first being broken down by enzymes in an expensive process. AltEnergis’s invention is a novel yeast cell that can metabolise fructans into ethanol directly, reducing costs and improving the yield by 25%.
This is innovative, fascinating stuff and if AltEnergis becomes a public company, we can all consider investing in. Otherwise, investors should be on the look-out for energy saving technology – energy saved is as valuable as energy found.