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Asian-American Develops Energy-Harvesting Shock Absorbers

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

For years, car manufacturers have been trying to develop innovative ways to improve a vehicle’s fuel efficiency and increase the average miles per gallon (mpg) that a particular vehicle can run on. This need has been brought about by the fact that only 10 to 16 percent of a car’s fuel energy is used to overcome air drag and road resistance to drive the car. The rest of this fuel energy is simply lost to exhaust heat, energy dissipation resulting from vibrations, and even the basic act of braking.

Many car manufacturers are focused on improving the car’s design to minimize drag and resistance, improve brake design to make them more regenerative, or throw in an electrical power source as with the case of hybrid vehicles. Now, a new innovation in transportation technology is taking shape, this time focusing on vehicular inefficiencies – vibrations, bumps and other movements in a vehicle’s suspension – converting them all into electricity. An Asian-American professor and his team of researchers have recently developed an energy-harvesting shock absorber that not only improves a car’s fuel efficiency by up to 8 percent, but will also convert the vibrations in the car’s suspension system into electricity. According to the researchers, even if only 5 percent of the total 256 million registered vehicles in the United States adopt this energy-absorbing technology, the total energy that can be recovered each year can be more than the amount of power generated by the Niagara Falls Plant – and has the potential of creating a six-billion dollar market.

The People behind this Innovation

The technology behind the energy-harvesting shock absorber was developed by Professor Lei Zuo of the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook, together with his graduate student team composed of Xiudong Tang and Zachary Brindak. With funding coming from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), the team developed high-energy density retrofitable prototypes at their Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center (AERTC) lab.

Addressing the large amounts of energy wasted by a vehicle’s movements, the team designed and patented both linear and rotational shock absorber prototypes. The linear shock absorber design makes a hollow coil tube which contains a smaller high flux intensity magnetic tube sliding inside. The rotational shock absorber on the other hand makes use of a compact motion magnification mechanism to generate electricity.

Because of the tremendous potential that this new energy-absorbing technology can deliver, Dr. Zuo and his team were awarded the R&D 100 Award by R&D Magazine, a prestigious technology award aptly nicknamed the “Oscars of Innovation” given to the top technological innovations of the year. People would be quite familiar with previous recipients of this award which included the flashcube, the ATM or automated teller machine, the fax machine, the halogen lamp, liquid crystal displays, and the HDTV.

Implications for the Automotive Industry and the Environment

According to the researchers, energy-harvesting shock absorbers can generate up to 400 watts of electricity during normal driving conditions, and as much as 1600 watts of electricity on rough roads. Off-road vehicles can get even higher electrical output depending on off-road conditions. The harvested energy would then be used to charge the vehicle’s batteries and power up other sections of the car. This would reduce the load exerted on the alternator and the engine, resulting in better fuel efficiency.

The fuel efficiencies may not seem much for individual vehicles but considering the 256 million vehicles that will be using this technology, the amount of fossil fuel saved would be quite considerable from an economic and environmental standpoint. The shock absorbers can be retrofitted to most modern vehicles without the need for any modification in the vehicle’s suspension system and can actually give better suspension control than standard shock absorbers. The results are a vehicle that saves gas, has less impact on the environment, and a much smoother ride.

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