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Radioactive Bimmers from Hell...

... say what? These last few days the online automotive world, including myself, was taken by storm thanks to a misleading article posted by the Brits at Autocar. The news article implied among other things that BMW is working on a radioactive technology. Autocar said that the aforementioned "thermoelectric generator" will arrive as a series produced tech and will be put in BMW cars in just a few years (ed, 2013 at the earliest).

The system is to complement the stop-start and brake energy regeneration systems, which are part of the highly-touted EfficientDynamics package. According to Autocar, the "thermoelectric generator" will capture the waste heat coming from the exhaust of the car and transform it into electricity. They also say that the system's center piece is a radioactive material that generates electricity when heated. Since the system is built around the vehicle's exhaust, it will use the dissipated and otherwise lost heat to generate current and help power the car's electrical systems.

On the whole, the system is said to increase the economy efficiency by 5%, as opposed to the 3% currently achieved by the start-stop and brake regeneration system. This is done by reducing the amount of time the alternator runs, therefore improving fuel consumption and cutting CO2 emissions.

The article also implies that the technology is similar to the one used by several Russian satellites, space probes and unmanned remote facilities, such as a series of lighthouses built by the former Russians at the Arctic Circle.

OK, so far so good. This is newsworthy enough, you might say. What exactly is my problem with it then? Well, first of all, the article was quoted by a bunch of Internet e-zines who didn't even bother to check the actual facts behind the technology. Everybody just put a nice "radioactive" tag in the titles of their articles and then went along with it, in the spirit of new media journalism.

Second of all, the original Autocar article is based on a huge misunderstanding. When I first read about the radioactive technology being studied by BMW engineers I immediately thought about nuclear fallouts that could happen after every minor fender bender between bimmers of the future.

Could the Bavarians actually be insane? Radioactive materials just a few inches from the occupants of a vehicle? Doesn't this sound terribly wrong, and most of all, illegal? Well, I guess I'm not the only one who saw something fishy with this picture, since several Internet users commentated on almost every similar "radioactive" news that the editors got it all wrong.

To get things straight, BMW IS working on an exhaust-heat regenerating system to provide electricity. The system IS called a "thermoelectric generator", and it DOES use heat which it transforms into electrical current. The major difference between what BMW is studying and what was powering those satellites is the way the actual system works, and the elements which comprise it.

What the soviets were using was a "radioisotope thermoelectric generator" (RTG or RTIG), which works very similar to a battery. The RTG provides electricity from the decay of a radioactive material, thanks to what is called the "Seebeck effect".

BMW on the other hand, along with General Motors, is looking into a technology called the "automotive thermoelectric generator" (ATEG). Which is pretty friggin' different than a radioactive-based system! First of all, there are more parts involved: a hot-side heat exchanger, a cold-side heat exchanger, a compression assembly system and special thermoelectric materials. Second of all, instead of a material which creates heat by radioactive decay, the heat of the exhaust gasses is used. So, no sixth-toe or nuclear fallouts from driving BMWs in the future.

What I particularly find intriguing in all this misunderstanding propagation is the fact that I couldn't find a single website (so far) which even bothered to check up on the "radioactive" statement. The Internet is a great place to share knowledge in almost every form. It's also a great place to propagate lies and misunderstandings.

It is the editor's job to separate the bull and the marketing wooden language in official press releases from the untarnished truth and actual facts. Especially in our case, when this information wasn't even from an official press release but from a car magazine. I swear, if this had been closer to April Fool's Day, we would have also jumped on the "radioactive" bandwagon, similarly to the BMW Canine Repellent Alloy Protection piece I did last year on the now defunct inoutstar.com.

 
 
 
 
 

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