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Prototype phase for new Loyola invention funded by NASA grant

September 27, 2013

Someday soon, smart phones could be charged in a pocket using only body heat to power up the devices. Even sooner, rocket sensors needed to monitor an engine’s health while launching it into space could feature sensors powered solely by the heat generated from the rocket. Those opportunities are within the realm of possibility thanks to a new patent-pending Loyola University New Orleans invention by physics professor Patrick Garrity, Ph.D., now entering the prototype stage thanks to a $74,523 NASA grant awarded by John C. Stennis Space Center.

“The power it takes to charge personal devices on Earth is literally a 10-gigawatt power plant worth every day,” Garrity said. “Body heat is a source of electricity, and we all produce heat. You could integrate that into clothing to charge personal devices. If you can take a power plant offline, that’s a big deal.”

Thermoelectric technology—the ability to turn heat into electricity—has been around for years, but plagued by inefficient processes, the alternative energy technology hasn’t exactly caught on for mainstream uses. But Garrity aims to change that. His method uses complex physics to raise the efficiency of these devices by orders of magnitude.

“The efficiency has been a problem for decades with thermoelectrics. That’s why not many people know about it. Everyone knows about solar power, but with thermoelectrics, the efficiency was so low that research groups have been working to try to raise it to make it competitive with other technologies,” Garrity said.

While researchers in the past tried creating a new super material to absorb heat and turn it into electricity, Garrity’s method takes a decidedly different approach. Garrity manipulates the inner-workings of a thermoelectric device that resembles a small square chip, called metamaterial. Where the heat enters the chip, Garrity created pathways sandwiched deep inside the device to guide the heat very specifically, making the process of turning heat into power expeditious.

To test the prototype, the grant funds beta tests conducted by Garrity and a Loyola undergraduate researcher (to be announced) at Stennis Space Center located about 50 miles from New Orleans in Mississippi’s Hancock County. Next summer, Garrity expects to test his prototype device’s ability to power sensors mounted adjacent to a rocket engine at the center’s engine testing facility. In addition to the undergraduate researcher, Garrity also assembled a team for the project that includes physics expert Kevin Stokes, Ph.D., and engineering expert Paul Schilling, Ph.D., of the University of New Orleans.

“That’s what I’m most excited about is moving this from the lab bench to an actual application. That’s what we’re working towards. The next step after that would be commercialization, and then we could move to maybe licensing the patent,” Garrity said.

This program is funded with support from Loyola University New Orleans and NASA Cooperative Agreement No. NNS13AA94A. The University of New Orleans is also providing support for the project.

Please contact Mikel Pak, associate director of public affairs at Loyola, at 504-861-5448 to set up media interviews.

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