Vecarius: Taking the Heat...and Using It

Innovation
Dec 23rd, 2013 | By Amy Leibrock

Our global oil system is operating at near capacity—97 percent—which just isn’t sustainable. Because 70% of oil consumption in the U.S. is used for ground transportation, reducing the amount of gas used by vehicles is key to heading off an impending crisis.

Boston-based Vecarius, which recently won the 2013 Sustainable America/Greentown Labs Fellowship, is working to tackle this problem. The company aims to reduce vehicle fuel consumption by turning vehicles’ exhaust waste heat into energy through the development of a thermo-electric generator system. This innovation can reduce fuel usage in vehicles by 5 to 10 percent.

Vecarius CEO Steven Casey told us more about the company.

Q: What is Vecarius’s goal?
Our vision is to enhance energy efficiency of energy-intensive platforms—including vehicles—through heat recovery solutions for mass markets, providing large societal benefits of reduced fuel consumption and emissions. We endeavor to be the leading provider of innovative heat recovery systems that reliably perform well and are affordable and easy to implement and operate.

Q: How do your products work?
We are developing a thermoelectric generator (TEG) device that converts heat from hot fluid flow directly into electricity. For our primary market—motor vehicles—this device is inserted into the exhaust system as an ‘add-on’, before the muffler and after the catalytic converter of a conventional vehicle. It provides electrical power to the electrical bus that powers the vehicle’s electrical components. Doing so off-loads the vehicle’s alternator, which is driven by the engine, from having to generate this electrical power and, therefore, reduces fuel consumption and emissions.

Q: Why are your products a good solution?
Application of TEG to vehicle exhaust to improve fuel economy is an attractive concept
since the approach accesses the greatest source of wasted energy in a vehicle: the exhaust
heat. That represents up to 40 percent of the energy that is consumed by a vehicle.

However, substantial power generation required—500W for a passenger car—within a harsh environment poses significant design challenges. The industry has spent tens of millions of dollars attempting to develop such a TEG, but none of these developments have yet succeeded in a TEG system that is cost-effective for mass vehicle markets due to inherent design complexity and associated high manufacturing cost of these systems.

Taking a dramatically different design approach which circumvents inherent design challenges and resulting complexity in existing TEG systems, Vecarius has developed a novel thermo-mechanical system architecture that uniquely incorporates high-temperature thermoelectrics within standard form factor typical of thermoelectrics, resulting in a relatively simple design at low cost. Furthermore, the TEG’s compactness and scalability in capacity maximizes ease and breadth of deployment across the full fleet of light-duty, medium-duty, and heavy-duty vehicles.

Q: How much fuel can this technology save?
Typically, 5 to 10 percent fuel savings and reduced emissions is possible for today’s vehicles. As vehicles become more electrified and thermoelectric material performance is further improved, greater savings are possible. In essence, our TEG achieves benefits similar to those of a hybrid powertrain but at far less cost for mass market penetration.

Over 15 million light-duty vehicles are manufactured annually in North America, most of which are well-suited for our TEG. Deployed to this market alone, our TEG would save billions of gallons of gasoline and reduce millions of metric tons of CO2 emitted annually. These savings are equivalent to removing over one million vehicles from the road annually.

Q: Where are you in the process of developing, testing, and selling your products?
We have developed and tested a fractional-scale prototype of the TEG, which contains the key characteristics of the full 500W TEG, proving feasibility of Vecarius’s patent-pending technology platform. We recently won a large National Science Foundation Phase II grant to fully develop a full-scale TEG.

Q: What has the response been from your potential customers?
Potential customers have been very receptive. Owners and operators of vehicle fleets find our TEG to be very attractive for immediate relief from crushing fuel costs—our TEG offers a compellingly short payback period over the lifetime of these vehicles. Furthermore, such customers like the fact that our TEG can be retrofitted to existing vehicle fleets without having to buy a new vehicle.

Vehicle manufactures also find our TEG very attractive toward meeting very strict Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards (CAFE) regulations over the next decade. [The CAFE standards announced in 2012 mean automakers must continue to raise average fuel efficiency of new cars and trucks to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.] We plan to supply these customers through Tier 1 auto parts suppliers for factory installation into new automobiles.

Q: What barriers do you foresee in bringing this product to market?
For automotive markets, low cost and high reliability are among the most-stringent requirements. However, our TEG has no moving parts—which lends itself to high reliability, and was specifically designed to be low-cost from the outset for mass vehicle markets. Therefore, these potential barriers are manageable for us.

Q: What does winning the Sustainable America/Greentown Labs fellowship mean for your company?
The fellowship provides a significant boost to our business as we take our company to the next level. As we expand our team, the free year’s rent at Greentown Labs will allow our finances to go further in developing our technology. Doing so in residence at Greentown adds far more value than just rental space, including CADD capabilities, prototype equipment, workshops and seminars for cleantech companies, and much more at no cost to us. The cash award will also help us further protect our intellectual property. Most importantly, our growing relationship with Sustainable America strengthens our supportive network of partners who are committed to making a large and lasting positive impact in cleantech, enabling our society to be more sustainable and energy efficient.

Sustainable America supports energy innovations from start-up companies like Vecarius that increase fuel efficiency and conservation. To help head off an impending food and fuel crisis, Sustainable America aims to reduce U.S. oil consumption by 50% while increasing U.S. food availability by 50% by 2035.

Tagged: fuel efficiency, fuel, tractor trailer fuel efficiency, Greentown Labs, startup fellowship, business fellowship, startups, Vecarius, thermo-electric generator, fuel consumption, TEG, capturing waste heat energy, Science & Tech, Innovation

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