shape memory alloys – reading with your eyes open
What are the limits of a technology article in the general media? Can it be an enlightening read?
appeared in the April 17th Globe and Mail. I couldn’t really understand the title but I was interested in Smarter Alloys. There was some buzz around them and I was curious. But, will I come out ahead? Will this article answer my questions? The author is an advisor with MaRS and an adjunct professor at York University. These should be positives. Further, it was a significant bit of writing, consuming a good fraction of a page; another positive. I decided to read.
I was only at the second paragraph and yellow flags began falling on the ground. The author was discussing the problem of waste heat. He included uranium, and the fission reaction, as an example. Yes, there will likely be waste heat, but is a fission process a good example. Is it as quantifiable as other processes? Another example cited the warm air flowing at the back of a refrigerator or air conditioner. In both of these situations there will be waste heat associated with the compressor, but there is also heat that was “removed” from the space being cooled. Maybe, there is room to extract energy from this heat, but there is room for clarification. I might be nitpicking, but there are likely better examples for demonstrating, and ways of describing, waste heat.
Red flags hit the field with the author’s use of marketing language. “Seemingly magical”,“perfected”, “ … IP will give company big edge …”, “ … race to world’s most efficient heat engine … ” are all examples of marketing phrasing. They beg the user to become excited. This type of promotional language can be a slippery slope and detracts from a true discussion of what is being developed. I would rather see a technology discussed on its merits than see marketing language chosen to generate excitement. For me, marketing language is used to hide or gloss over the story.
What about Smarter Alloys? What are they doing? They have developed a shape memory alloy. It undergoes a shape change when it is put through a temperature cycle. The Globe & Mail article discusses a system that uses this alloy to generate electricity. A belt made from their shape memory alloy travels between a warm water bath and air. A difference between the temperature of the water, where the warm water acts as a source of heat, and air causes the belt to undergo a shape change, which causes the belt to rotate. This rotates the generator and electricity is produced.
A first question is how efficient is the system? The author does not provide this number or even discuss efficiency. This is noticeable as he mentions a very precise 72% from a “German” study when discussing the examples of waste heat. The 70% range is a well known number for combustion processes.
How much heat can the current system convert to electricity? The generator may simply be for demonstration, but a first guess is that we would be told if the efficiency was high.
The ability to convert waste heat to usable energy is at the heart of considerable research. Shape memory alloys are one example. Thermoelectric materials are another. To date, the latter’s low efficiency has prevented commercial applications. If the Smarter Alloys system moves through R&D it could be one of many in the field of extracting energy from waste heat.
Finally, I want to touch on IP. As noted above the article states “ … IP will give company a big edge …”. This may be true, but we have nowhere near enough information to assert the role of IP here. Like many fields, there are a number of technologies directed at the recovery of waste heat and each of these will have numerous “levels” of patents. A first bit of digging found issued patent US9,186,853 and pending patent application US20160068938. The front page of these documents indicates they both stem from the same applications filed in 2009 and 2010. I do not want to discuss these further here. However, it is sufficient and prudent to say the IP picture is likely complex and can not be summarized with one catch phrase.
An article in The Globe and Mail can not be considered an expansive synopsis of the field. However, this particular article places the technology in a curiosity category instead of a valid development amongst many. There are likely some things that I can overlook, but the marketing language was a clear red flag. In the end there were many questions that were either blurred, incompletely answered or unanswered. One might say that you always have to read with your eyes open.