A Simple Thermocouple

All you need is a location with a high temperature and a lower temperature. Take two copper wires and a length of steel wire. Twist one end of each copper wire at each end of the steel wire. Immerse one end of the now coiled wire in a heated location and the other in a cool one, attach the remaining ends of the copper wires to your voltmeter and watch the current flow. You have just made thermoelectricity with a custom thermocouple. Its really small but you get the idea.

Seiko’s Heat Generator Watch

The modern devices are using semiconductors rather than junctions of dissimilar metals. The Swedes have “stovetop” generators for remote locations to drive small electric appliances. Seiko offers a watch the gets its power from the warmth of the skin. There are a lot of possibilities in thermogeneration.

The concept was first observed by Thomas Johann Seebeck way back in 1821, so it’s called the “Seebeck Effect.” The early work has been built up to today with thermocouples in wide use for measuring heat or conducting signals.

Nevertheless, the value of the effect is getting more attention now that energy recovery is becoming an important part of energy and fuel use. Professor Mike Rowe, Professor of Thermoelectrics at Cardiff University in the U.K. has 40 years of effort in employing thermocouples to convert heat into electricity. The professor has enough momentum in his career now that he’s working with the U.S. Department of Energy to establish an EU/USA thermoelectric material research collaboration. The plan is to reproduce some substantial improvements in thermoelectric performance using low dimensional semiconductor structures with nano particle sized materials.

Professor Rowe is quoted saying. “The main interest in cars is to decrease the petrol consumption and reduce CO2 emissions. If you can utilize the exhaust heat you could replace the alternator. This would provide a 5 percent saving in fuel straightaway.” With U.S auto manufacturers with this on the R&D list the U.S might find something valuable here. Removing the load of the alternator and replacing the energy an alternator would have made from the exhaust might be better than first thought.

Other reports credit Professor Rowe with the idea that thermocouples could be used in solar collectors, which may be more cost efficient than some photovoltaic cell panels.

Can the thermogenerator be a worthwhile investment? It’s way to soon to tell. No reports are discussing the efficiency of the devices. One major problem is the resistance in the conducting wires. Some research is examining the potential using super conductor wire. Yet the allure of recapturing the energy that would otherwise be just lost is compelling.

Currently the thermocouple is a useful device with many in your home and other places that use its voltage generation for controls. The reports over the past few days have raised some expectations. The cost to benefit ratio is still a long way off, though.

The refreshing thing is considerable intellectual and some financial power is being leveled at catching the energy before its lost to entropy. That’s very good news. The research may well come to a high efficiency and that would be a very good thing indeed. It’s a field well worth some more funding and investigation.

Or . . . better still it there is some technological competition. We looked at the nano infrared antennae a few weeks back that are already reported to be in the 80% range of efficiency. The latest news is that the technology has been released for license.

The hunt is on for the energy in entropy, with real progress being made.


7 Comments so far

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