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Graphene could lead to greener more fuel efficient cars in the future by converting heat into electricity.

Harvesting heat produced by a car’s engine which would otherwise end up wasted and using it to recharge the car’s batteries or powering the air-conditioning system could be a significant feature in the next generation of hybrid cars.

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The average car currently loses around 70 percent of energy generated through fuel consumption to heat. Utilizing that lost energy requires a thermoelectric material that can generate an electrical current from the application of heat.

Thermoelectric materials convert heat to electricity or vice-versa, such as with refrigerators. The challenge with these devices is to use a material that is a good conductor of electricity but also dissipates heat well.

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Currently, materials which exhibit these properties are often toxic and operate at very high temperatures – higher than that produced by car engines. By adding graphene, a new generation of composite materials could reduce carbon emissions globally from car use.

Scientists from The University of Manchester working with European Thermodynamics Ltd increased the potential for low cost thermoelectric materials to see more wide use in the automotive industry.

The team, led by Prof Ian Kinloch, Prof Robert Freer and Yue Lin, added a small amount of graphene to strontium titanium oxide.

The resulting composite was able to convert heat which would otherwise be lost as waste into an electric current over a broad temperature range, going down to room temperature.

“Current oxide thermoelectric materials are limited by their operating temperatures which can be around 700 degrees Celsius,” Freer said. “This has been a problem which has hampered efforts to improve efficiency by utilizing heat energy waste for some time.

“Our findings show that by introducing a small amount of graphene to the base material can reduce the thermal operating window to room temperature which offers a huge range of potential for applications.

“The new material will convert 3-5 percent of the heat into electricity. That is not much but, given that the average vehicle loses roughly 70 percent of the energy supplied to it by its fuel to waste heat and friction, recovering even a small percentage of this with thermoelectric technology would be worthwhile.”

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