Faurecia has invented the world’s first system to convert exhaust heat into electricity for hybrid cars and horsepower for commercial trucks.

The technology was among several technological innovations Faurecia debuted at the North American International Auto Show, which is also known as the Detroit Auto Show, earlier this month.

Faurecia is converting the estimated 30 percent of heat energy lost through the exhaust to something useful — electricity, said Andy Pontius, Faurecia director of product design and development.

The technology is significant because carbon emission standards for engines grow stricter each year, Pontius said. Vehicles that can use the formerly wasted heat energy rely less on their gasoline and diesel engines and significantly reduce emissions, company officials said.

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Trucks can improve their fuel economy by 5 percent or more and avoid 55 tons of carbon dioxide emissions during the vehicle’s life, company officials predicted. In hybrids, fuel economy is improved about 7 percent, with a reduction over the car’s lifetime of 2.5 tons of CO2.

Most cars use an alternator to generate power for the vehicle’s electrical system, said Robin Willats, Faurecia chief engineer.

Alternators are basically small generators which use mechanical power from the engine to drive a small, magnetically-charged wire coil which interacts with another oppositely charged magnet to produce electricity.

Because an alternator diverts power directly from the motor, it decreases engine efficiency by between 4 and 6 percent, Willats said.

“We wanted to exchange that (alternators) for a source with no drag on energy,” Willats said. The heat from exhaust is already part of the combustion process and, currently, it is mostly wasted, Willats said.

Out of science fiction

Faurecia’s newest product in development is the Thermo-Electric Generator, something that sounds like something out of science fiction, Pontius said.Faurecia engineers already knew that electricity can be produced by connecting semiconductors to materials with two dramatically different temperatures. Basically, electrons tend to move from heat to cold, producing a small electrical charge.They are trying to determine if this reaction can be used as a way to create electricity from exhaust heat, Pontius said. Early test models involve a module which surrounds the exhaust pipe, he said. The inside of the module contains a series of metal fins which collect heat. The outside of the module contains coolants. Connecting the two are a series of semiconductors, Pontius said.

Right now, the process is only possible using very rare, fragile materials, Willats said. The challenge is moving from comfortable, climate-controlled labs to the hot, unpredictable conditions found inside of an exhaust pipe.

To date, lab test managed to produce 200 to 400 watts of electricity using the system, Pontius said. However, as the process develops over time, he predicts dramatic increases in the amount of power produced by the device.

But, this is a project for the future. The company is not even considering production for the generator until after 2023.

A muffler generator

If the Thermo-Electric Generator is the future, then the Exhaust Heat Power Generation Unit, or muffler generator, is the company’s current generation of energy from exhaust systems, Willats said.This device works by placing a liquid-filled capsule on the exhaust pipe, Pontius said. As the pipe heats up, the liquid expands and turns to steam. This expansion turns a turbine inside the capsule, which drives either a small generator in hybrid cars or adds mechanical power directly to the gearbox in combustion engine cars or trucks. As it moves away from the hot pipe, the steam condenses back into liquid, which is pumped back into the capsule.In a different context, this is very, very old technology, Pontius said. Basically, it’s a tiny steam engine.

Compared to the big, loud devices used to power old trains, this device is microscopic. All told, the entire system weighs about 10 kilograms or 22 pounds, Pontius said.

It also is very efficient, Willats said. The current system which Faurecia will be selling to an as-yet-unannounced Asian automaker produces about 400 watts of electricity. At peak engine efficiency, it can produce up to 1,500 watts of electricity.

This system is ready for production, Pontius said. As companies prepare to manufacture their next round of cars for the early 2020s, the muffler generator will start appearing on cars from a number of manufacturers, primarily in North America and Europe, Pontius said.

Efficiency upgrade

Faurecia already has introduced a simple efficiency upgrade called the Exhaust Heat Recovery System which appears on some European cars and will likely become common on most cars in the United States, Pontius said.When a car is cold, many of the fluids in the engine move poorly through the engine, Pontius said. The result is an engine in which moving parts rub against each other, causing wear and tear on the motor.At its simplest, the most basic Faurecia efficiency process involves an extra pipe near the exhaust manifold which directs hot air towards a tube connected to the car’s cooling system. The heat from the exhaust system warms the fluids, allowing the engine to run more smoothly, Pontius said.

The manufacturer has had a similar product in use since 2006 on the French Citroen C4 Picasso, Willats said.

“We see this as a nearly obligatory part of the hybrid strategy,” Willats said. It is a simple, easy addition for automakers, especially in an environment of increasingly strict carbon dioxide emission regulation, Willats said.

But, this is just a drop in the efficiency bucket, Pontius said. Currently, a typical new vehicle used in corporate fleets emits about 215 grams of carbon per mile, Pontius said. By 2025, regulations will limit emissions from this class of cars to 135 grams per mile.

“Those gains will become more and more difficult each year,” Willats said. That is about 4 percent per year, he added. In order to hit these benchmarks, automakers will be constantly looking for new ways to squeeze efficiency out of every system in the car.

About Faurecia

What the company does in Columbus: Produces exhaust systems for General Motors, Ford and Chrysler and is also a Cummins supplier.

Employs: About 1,635 people between its manufacturing facility at 601 Gladstone Ave. in Columbus and the research and development center which is on the edge of the former Walesboro Airport property at 950 W. County Road 450S near County Road 175W. A new 400,000-square-foot manufacturing facility is being constructed next to the research and development facility is planned to generate 131 new jobs by December 2017.

Worldwide: Faurecia is the world’s sixth-largest automotive supplier, with four business groups, automotive seating, emissions control technologies, interior systems and automotive exteriors. The company employs 99,500 people in 34 countries at 330 sites and 30 research and development centers.

For more on the company, visit facebook.com/faureciaNA or the company’s website at faurecia.com.

About the Faurecia technology

Thermo-Electric Generator

This technology relies on electricity being produced by connecting semiconductors to materials with two dramatically different temperatures. Electrons tend to move from heat to cold, producing a small electrical charge. The company is testing if this reaction can be used as a way to create electricity from exhaust heat.

The Exhaust Heat Power Generation Unit

This system incorporates a tiny steam engine attached to the muffler of the car.

This device works by placing a liquid-filled capsule on the exhaust pipe. As the pipe heats up, the liquid expands and turns to steam. This expansion turns a turbine inside the capsule, which drives either a small generator in hybrid cars or adds mechanical power directly to the gearbox in combustion engine cars or trucks. As it moves away from the hot pipe, the steam condenses back into liquid, which is pumped back into the capsule.

Exhaust Heat Recovery System

This system runs an additional pipe near the exhaust manifold of the engine to a tube connected to the cooling system. Hot air from the exhaust warms all of the engine fluids, decreasing the time between starting the car on a cold day and reaching optimal operating temperature.

— Information provided by Faurecia