Hey, Quit Letting All The Heat Out!

Most of the heat generated by fossil fuels ends up simply being wasted. New developments in waste heat recovery could be a boon to efficiency.

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In November 2014, Natural Resources Canada funded an energy mapping study in Alberta to determine how to improve energy efficiency. One of its findings was that if even 33% of the waste heat from Alberta’s two largest industrial sites was recaptured it could heat 15,200 homes, power another 5,100 homes and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 151,000 tonnes. This study highlights the inefficiency of energy sources like fossil fuels – 70% of the potential energy from fossil fuels is wasted to our environment.

James Cotton, Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at McMaster University, and his research team are trying to capture that 70% and use it for other purposes. Currently, their focus is converting waste heat from commercial ovens into electricity to power the restaurant. But their vision does not stop there. Once they have optimized something on the order of a commercial establishment, they want to grow these sustainable systems, like Lego, into bigger and bigger systems.

The applications of this technology are not limited to industry – waste heat recovery from your furnace could be used to power your home or heat it at a later time. Prof. Cotton’s group at McMaster is working on developing the technology to allow buildings to store thermal energy in a battery much like the electric battery used in a car.

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James Cotton is a Professor in Mechanical Engineering as well as the Associate Director of the McMaster Institute for Energy Studies at McMaster University and a leading researcher in energy harvesting. His research focuses on developing, modeling and experimentally validating technologies to advance efficient energy harvesting, thermal management solutions and tri-generation (electricity, heating and cooling) systems. During Prof. Cotton’s tenure at Dana Corp. (2000-2007), his research activities included automotive power plant and fuel cell thermal management system design and emission control. Prof. Cotton’s research and industry experience has involved nearly all aspects of the energy network, ranging from improving the power conversion of automotive power trains, waste heat recovery from commercial and industrial processes, and enhancing energy efficiency in buildings. Prof. Cotton is in the process of commercializing technology to employ waste heat from a restaurant’s food production to provide resiliency and meet thermal and basic electrical requirements.


Allison Guy is a freelance science writer who is passionate about increasing scientific literacy and enhancing scientific discourse among the public. She holds a MSc in neuroscience from the University of Toronto and has been working as a drug development consultant for the pharmaceutical industry both domestically and abroad for the last 5 years. She is also a lecturer at Ryerson University in the Department of Chemistry and Biology and at the G. Raymond Chang School where she teaches pharmaceutical development and regulation.