IS THERMAL ENGINEERING DYING?
With the ongoing emergence of electrification of transportation around the globe, the future of thermal engineering looks bleak and uncertain. This has led to worried students pursuing the field into asking questions like “Is it okay to learn about IC engines when all vehicles will run on batteries by the next decade?” Though it looks like a dominant thermal market, electrification is indeed happening. Power plants, turbine based machinery, conventional engines, are they going to be there in the next few years?
As a thermal engineering aspirant and also as a person who supports environmental betterment, I would like to state a few points on the matter. When such questions are asked, people tend to make a number of incorrect assumptions based on limited knowledge. Firstly, thermal engineering is a broad domain and encompasses much more than petrol and diesel run engines. Think about gas turbines. These mammoth giants use heat generated from coal and fossil fuels to rotate shafts that generate electricity. One cannot possibly electrify a gas turbine. The point intended to be stated here is that thermal machinery generate electrical power from conventional and non-conventional sources, and electrification of these machines do not make sense. The next point is that the subject not only deals with machinery but also the design of machinery for heat transfer. If you are a mechanical, heat transfer will be a relatable term. Nevertheless, it deals with the transfer of heat across surfaces like pi-pes, flat and circular plates, and other such components. A component in an industry, besides the forces being subjected to, also has to be designed on the basis of heat generated during operation. Take LiPo batteries as an instance. These batteries are the powerhouse of the electric vehicles, and in order to contain them, heat sinks and cages are used. These components are designed on the basis of the concepts of heat transfer. Similarly heat dissipation based components work on the basis of heat transfer.
The misconception here is that people associate thermal sciences with the release of toxic pollutants which are detrimental to the ecosystem. It is indeed true; and the emission control norms have been established for the very reason. Just as people are considering electrification as an alternative; betterment of emission norms is also working towards zero emission technologies. However adherence to emission norms are not being taken as seriously compared to reduction of gaseous pollutants.
Electrification, as the name suggests is on the verge on using electricity as a primary medium for harnessing mechanical energy. But there are quite a number of issues with them. To start with is the source of electric power: The LiPo battery. Disposal of these batteries is a worldwide concern and failing to dispose them in a proper manner does great harm to the surroundings. Such batteries need to be charged frequently; and the number of electric stations is relatively few compared to gas stations. Altough it is a problem, the number of petrol stations is expected to multiply across developed countries by the next few years. Net power output is another topic to be pondered. The efficiency offered for an electric vehicle for the same money is quite less than a petrol or diesel run automobile. On dividing the total money spent on charging and procuring battery packs by the number of miles it can run, the number is much less when this is done for conventional automobiles. Simply said, the money involved for running an electric transport for a single mile is way more than for a petrol based transport.
On a concluding note, both of the developments are equally helpful. Electrification saves fuel; while fuel can be saved for more concerning uses like generating electricity. Fuel emission norms are to be acknowledged at an equal light as the conversion of transport to electricity. Thermal engineering is a vast field and has plenty of applications in our daily lives. It is always been helpful for the greater good of the society. One should not simply discard it as an age old topic that leaves little scope of improvement.