Because for nearly 200 years its been a nemesis for careers, a frustration and tasty bait because it can harness heat and change it into electricity. The impact now of a working, efficient and low cost device would be a huge advantage to making energy and fuels do far more work per unit. Some materials can do this now or do the reverse as seen in Peltier CPU coolers (also known as a Thermo-Electric Cooler) in computers. The problems tend to be getting past the matter of both the heat and the electricity being conducted. For these things to work they need to conduct the electricity but not the heat so the electricity will be generated. Peltier coolers are a clever way to exploit the principle.

Peltier CPU Cooler

At the basics, where the physics meet the experiment, heating a electrically conductive wire at one end will cause the electrons to move to the cool end. So applying current to the wire will move the heat from the hot end to the cool end, doing the reverse. Thus, the principle of the thermo electricity is visible, Peltier coolers work (sometimes) and the effort to generate electricity from heat sources is still a worthy goal.

Brian Wang who runs the nextbigfuture.com looked into the thermodynamics field back in November. At the link you’ll see that the U.S. Department of Energy has a program that is looking for improvements to thermoelectric generation (ThGn).

Thermoelectric Progress Chart

ThGn offers containment of heat that would otherwise just be lost into useful electricity. This would be a huge lift to anything that was using a heat source to do any kind of work from a coal fired boiler or nuclear reactor all way to a small engine that might be generating electricity to charge a hybrid automobile’s battery set or even a candle. In all applications, the heat contained and converted would be put to work using electricity rather than just lost.

Generally speaking, across the electrical power generating industry, they make about 1/3 of the fuel they use into electricity, or 2/3rds of the energy is escaping. In personal transportation, about 20% of the fuel powers and moves the cars and 80% escapes out the tailpipe and radiator. Applying ThGn to these fields would have a considerable effect, a kind of “conservation” in the extreme, if that is an explanation to get it across. But ThGn is really about efficiency. Tripling electrical power generation or quintupling the fuel mileage would solve a lot of problems.

Closed Circuit Thermoelectric Module

The news last week out of Boston Collage and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that they achieved a major increase in thermoelectric efficiency is big news. Its gets even more noteworthy when the material their research focuses on is cheap, readily available, environmentally friendly, easily processed into products that could reclaim heat and generate electricity. Using bismuth antimony telluride, a common semiconductor alloy, the team crushes the alloy down to nanoscale sized particles and reconstitutes them into a composite. In such small grains and so irregular in shapes they reconstituted alloy by pressing it into discs and bars at high temperatures making a lattice work of fine crystalline particles that “dramatically slowed the passage of phonons through the material, radically transforming the thermoelectric performance by blocking heat flow while allowing the electrical flow.” That’s the prescription for new thermoelectric devices.

Does this mean anything in concrete terms? Not yet, a review of the current materials available aren’t showing the bismuth antimony telluride alloy or is the alloy comparable to other materials in the scientific press, yet. The press release is saying the team is showing a 40% increase in the alloy’s figure of merit, a term the scientists are using to measure a material’s relative performance. It does look good, and comes from leading research institutions.

The details list attributes such as operating temperatures ranging from room temperature to 250 degrees C, the material may be good enough to be commercially viable, and the materials are available in metric tons so the composite alloy can be made by the ton. The team believes the material will find its way into the first products in a matter of months.

If it weren’t for the physics in the thermoelectric effect one might think this is all a kind of alchemy. Getting electricity directly from a heat source sounds almost mystical., but it is real.

Here is the kicker. Remember the 2/3rds from power generation lost, the 4/5ths of gasoline lost, and think of the other “Losts”? That’s when one realizes the market for this kind of thing is just astounding. The opportunities here are beyond simple discussion, one would need several pages to list all the potential uses, and the field has just now opened up with more innovation to come. After waiting nearly 200 years, the hunt has a viable result. The race to 100% fuel efficiency is on!

Big news, indeed.


Comments

6 Comments so far

  1. thermal electric coolers cpu | computer tags on July 10, 2008 2:37 AM

    […] What�s That Thermoelectric Effect and Why Is It So Important Now? Thus, the principle of the thermo electricity is visible, Peltier coolers work (sometimes) and the effort to generate electricity from heat sources is still a worthy goal. Brian Wang who runs the nextbigfuture.com looked into the …New Energy and Fuel – http://newenergyandfuel.com […]

  2. peltier cpu cooler | computer tags on July 10, 2008 6:05 PM

    […] What�s That Thermoelectric Effect and Why Is It So Important Now? Because for nearly 200 years its been a nemesis for careers, a frustration and tasty bait because it can harness heat and change it into electricity. The impact now of a working, efficient and low cost device would be a huge advantage …New Energy and Fuel – http://newenergyandfuel.com […]

  3. Heat to electricity to heat to … « Texas A&M Engineering Works on September 21, 2010 11:02 PM
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