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Can Engineers Convert Heat from Pavements into Clean Energy?

A team of students and professors at the University of Texas at San Antonio hope so.

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Johannes Plenio

An engineering professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio is working on a project to convert the heat in hot pavements into usable energy. Samer Dessouky, who teaches civil engineering at the university was awarded $298,000 by the Strategic Alliance between UTSA’s Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute and CPS Energy, an energy utility company in San Antonio.

Dessouky and his team of students and other professors began working on the technology for a thermal energy-harvesting system since 2015. Their goals are two-fold: remove heat from the pavement and turn that heat into energy. Dessouky says that pavements collect heat from sun during the day, especially during Texas summers, and eventually contribute overtime to the raising the temperature of the surrounding environment, particularly in the city.

“If we could cool the pavement down, that could make it great benefit to lower the temperature,” Dessouky says.

He explains that in order to turn heat from hot pavements into hot energy, they extract the difference in temperature between the pavements and the cooler ground underneath the pavement, convert that difference into electric voltage that can then be stored in a battery and potentially used for things such as LED lighting or traffic signals. The process would provide a clean energy solution that could also lower environmental temperatures.

“It’s just a very simple approach, that we’re converting energy into another source of energy,” he says.

Dessouky and his team has created a few prototypes (including one that they’re in the process of patenting) that they’ve tested around the university. With the potential pros that come from the project, there are also complications. The materials needed to create the prototypes are expensive, materials placed in pavement can be subject to wear and tear from traffic, and so far the energy they’re able to produce so far is relatively low. With the new funding, the team plans to improve on making their prototypes more effective.

“These are challenges we understand and we are working really to find ways to make sure that what we build in the pavement should last, be effective, and at the same time cost as little as possible,” Dessouky says.

The project has the potential to provide energy to rural areas as well as for universities and has been recognized for its potential. Dessouky and his collaborators, A.T. Papagiannakis, McDermott professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Utpal Datta, a graduate student, won first place in the Innovation Competition of the American Society of Civil Engineers for the benefits of their technology for the transportation industry.

“It’s a long process,” Dessouky says. “I’m hoping with time we are able to reach a point where we are really reducing the temperature of pavement during the daytime, a problem that we all feel, especially in Texas.”

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