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FEATURE ARTICLE

The Power of Sound

Sound waves in "thermoacoustic" engines and refrigerators can replace the pistons and cranks that are typically built into such machinery

Steven Garrett, Scott Backhaus

Figure 1. Glassblowers can sometimes hearClick to Enlarge Image

Over the past two decades, physicists and engineers have been working on a class of heat engines and compression-driven refrigerators that use no oscillating pistons, oil seals or lubricants. These so-called thermoacoustic devices take advantage of sound waves reverberating within them to convert a temperature differential into mechanical energy or mechanical energy into a temperature differential. Such machines can thus be used, for example, to generate electricity or to provide refrigeration and air conditioning. Because thermoacoustic devices perform best with inert gases as the working fluid, they do not produce the harmful environmental effects such as global warming or stratospheric ozone depletion that have been associated with the engineered refrigerants such as CFCs and HFCs. Recent advances have boosted efficiencies to levels that rival what can be obtained from internal combustion engines, suggesting that commercial thermoacoustic devices may soon be commonplace.


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