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Lecturer: Orest G. Symko, professor of physics, University of Utah
Date: Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2007
Time: 7:30 p.m.
Place: Aline Wilmot Skaggs Biology Building Auditorium, University of Utah


University of Utah physicist Orest G. Symko will discuss his effort to develop acoustic heat-engine devices that convert heat into electricity – a new technology that holds promise for utilizing waste heat, harnessing solar energy and cooling computers and radar equipment. Symko will demonstrate several of the devices during his free public lecture.

He says the heat engines convert heat into sound, and then into electricity in a simple, efficient way. They have no moving parts, are cheap to make and perform with little or no maintenance for extended periods. The devices are being developed for a variety of applications, including harvesting waste heat from conventional and nuclear power plants, capturing solar energy, and cooling electronic equipment.

Symko plans to test the devices by using them to produce electricity from waste heat at a military radar facility and at the University of Utah’s hot-water-generating plant. He says even a small power plant could provide enough waste heat to generate $250,000 worth of electricity per year.

In 2005, Symko began a five-year heat-sound-electricity conversion research project named Thermal Acoustic Piezo Energy Conversion (TAPEC). Symko works with collaborators at Washington State University and the University of Mississippi.

The research is funded by the U.S. Army, which is seeking new ways to cool military radars and to produce a portable electricity source to operate electronic devices on the battlefield, he says.

The project has received $2 million in funding during the past 2.5 years, and Symko hopes it will grow as small heat-sound-electricity devices shrink further so they can be incorporated in micromachines (known as microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS) for use in cooling computers and other electronic devices such as amplifiers.

Using sound to convert heat into electricity has two key steps. Symko’s research team developed various new heat engines (technically called “thermoacoustic prime movers”) to accomplish the first step: convert heat into sound. Some devices can produce sound at 135 decibels – as loud as a jackhammer.

Then they convert the sound into electricity using existing technology: “piezoelectric” devices that are squeezed in response to pressure, including sound waves, and change that pressure into electrical current.

Symko says recent progress in piezoelectric materials shows potential for achieving higher power densities with this type of energy converter. And the devices can be miniaturized and arranged in an array, allowing many to be placed on one source of waste heat.

Symko attended the University of Ottawa, Canada, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 1961 and 1962, respectively. He earned a doctorate in physics at the University of Oxford, England, in 1967 and was hired as a research assistant in the Clarendon Laboratory at Oxford. In 1970, he accepted an assistant professorship at the University of Utah and was promoted to full professor of physics in 1979. He has directed the Center for Acoustic Cooling Technology at the U since 2000.

Symko was named a Fellow of the American Physical Society in 1990. He won the University of Utah Distinguished Teaching Award in 1985 and the Hatch Prize for Teaching in 1995. For his work on thermoacoustic technology, he received the University of Utah Distinguished Scholarly and Creative Research Award in 2002. He has written a textbook, “Physics of Hi-Fi: Analog to Digital,” and more than 100 peer-reviewed publications.

The Frontiers of Science lecture series is celebrating its 40th year in 2007, making it among the longest-running lecture series in University of Utah history. The series is co-hosted by the College of Science and the College of Mines and Earth Sciences.

An earlier news release on Symko’s research may be found at: