Researchers at Boston College and MIT have used nanotechnology to achieve a major increase in thermoelectric efficiency, a milestone that paves the way for a new generation of products - from semiconductors and air conditioners to car exhaust systems and solar power technology - that run cleaner.
The team's low-cost approach, details of which are published today in the online version of the journal Science, involves building tiny alloy nanostructures that can serve as micro-coolers and power generators. The researchers said that in addition to being inexpensive, their method will likely result in practical, near-term enhancements to make products consume less energy or capture energy that would otherwise be wasted.
The findings represent a key milestone in the quest to harness the thermoelectric effect, which has both enticed and frustrated scientists since its discovery in the early 19th century. The effect refers to certain materials that can convert heat into electricity and vice versa. But there has been a hitch in trying to exploit the effect: most materials that conduct electricity also conduct heat, so their temperature equalizes quickly. In order to improve efficiency, scientists have sought materials that will conduct electricity but not similarly conduct heat.
Using nanotechnology, the researchers at BC and MIT produced a big increase in the thermoelectric efficiency of bismuth antimony telluride - a semiconductor alloy that has been commonly used in commercial devices since the 1950s - in bulk form. Specifically, the team realized a 40 percent increase in the alloy's figure of merit, a term scientists use to measure a material's relative performance.
The achievement marks the first such gain in a half-century using the cost-effective material that functions at room temperatures and up to 250 degrees Celsius. The success using the relatively inexpensive and environmentally friendly alloy in bulk form means the discovery can quickly be applied to a range of uses, leading to higher cooling and power generation efficiency.
“By using nanotechnology, we have found a way to improve an old material by breaking it up and then rebuilding it in a composite of nanostructures in bulk form,” said Boston College physicist Zhifeng Ren, one of the leaders of the project. “This method is low cost and can be scaled for mass production. This represents an exciting opportunity to improve the performance of thermoelectric materials in a cost-effective manner.”
“These thermoelectric materials are already used in many applications, but this better material can have a bigger impact,” said Gang Chen, the Warren and Towneley Rohsenow Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT and another leader of the project.
At its core, thermoelectricity is the “hot and cool” issue of physics. Heating one end of a wire, for example, causes electrons to move to the cooler end, producing an electric current. In reverse, applying a current to the same wire will carry heat away from a hot section to a cool section. Phonons, a quantum mode of vibration, play a key role because they are the primary means by which heat conduction takes place in insulating solids.
Bismuth antimony telluride is a material commonly used in thermoelectric products, and the researchers crushed it into a nanoscopic dust and then reconstituted it in bulk form, albeit with nanoscale constituents. The grains and irregularities of the reconstituted alloy dramatically slowed the passage of phonons through the material, radically transforming the thermoelectric performance by blocking heat flow while allowing the electrical flow.
In addition to Ren and six researchers at his BC lab, the international team involved MIT researchers, including Chen and Institute Professor Mildred S. Dresselhaus; research scientist Bed Poudel at GMZ Energy, Inc, a Newton, Mass.-based company formed by Ren, Chen, and CEO Mike Clary; as well as BC visiting Professor Junming Liu, a physicist from Nanjing University in China.
Thermoelectric materials have been used by NASA to generate power for far-away spacecraft. These materials have been used by specialty automobile seat makers to keep drivers cool during the summer. The auto industry has been experimenting with ways to use thermoelectric materials to convert waste heat from a car exhaust systems into electric current to help power vehicles.
The research was supported by the Department of Energy and by the National Science Foundation.
This paper will be published online by the journal Science, at the Science Express web site, on THURSDAY, March 20, 2008. See http:// www.sciencexpress.org, and also http://www.aaas.org.
Written by Ed Hayward, Boston College Office of Public Affairs
Waste from paper and pulp industry supplies raw material for development of new redox flow batteries
12.10.2017 | Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz
Low-cost battery from waste graphite
11.10.2017 | Empa - Eidgenössische Materialprüfungs- und Forschungsanstalt
University of Maryland researchers contribute to historic detection of gravitational waves and light created by event
On August 17, 2017, at 12:41:04 UTC, scientists made the first direct observation of a merger between two neutron stars--the dense, collapsed cores that remain...
Seven new papers describe the first-ever detection of light from a gravitational wave source. The event, caused by two neutron stars colliding and merging together, was dubbed GW170817 because it sent ripples through space-time that reached Earth on 2017 August 17. Around the world, hundreds of excited astronomers mobilized quickly and were able to observe the event using numerous telescopes, providing a wealth of new data.
Previous detections of gravitational waves have all involved the merger of two black holes, a feat that won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics earlier this month....
Material defects in end products can quickly result in failures in many areas of industry, and have a massive impact on the safe use of their products. This is why, in the field of quality assurance, intelligent, nondestructive sensor systems play a key role. They allow testing components and parts in a rapid and cost-efficient manner without destroying the actual product or changing its surface. Experts from the Fraunhofer IZFP in Saarbrücken will be presenting two exhibits at the Blechexpo in Stuttgart from 7–10 November 2017 that allow fast, reliable, and automated characterization of materials and detection of defects (Hall 5, Booth 5306).
When quality testing uses time-consuming destructive test methods, it can result in enormous costs due to damaging or destroying the products. And given that...
Using a new cooling technique MPQ scientists succeed at observing collisions in a dense beam of cold and slow dipolar molecules.
How do chemical reactions proceed at extremely low temperatures? The answer requires the investigation of molecular samples that are cold, dense, and slow at...
Scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, using high precision laser spectroscopy of atomic hydrogen, confirm the surprisingly small value of the proton radius determined from muonic hydrogen.
It was one of the breakthroughs of the year 2010: Laser spectroscopy of muonic hydrogen resulted in a value for the proton charge radius that was significantly...
17.10.2017 | Event News
10.10.2017 | Event News
10.10.2017 | Event News
19.10.2017 | Materials Sciences
19.10.2017 | Materials Sciences
19.10.2017 | Physics and Astronomy