Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Nanoscale pillars could radically improve conversion of heat to electricity

21.02.2014
University of Colorado Boulder scientists have found a creative way to radically improve thermoelectric materials, a finding that could one day lead to the development of improved solar panels, more energy-efficient cooling equipment, and even the creation of new devices that could turn the vast amounts of heat wasted at power plants into more electricity.

The technique—building an array of tiny pillars on top of a sheet of thermoelectric material—represents an entirely new way of attacking a century-old problem, said Mahmoud Hussein, an assistant professor of aerospace engineering sciences who pioneered the discovery.

The thermoelectric effect, first discovered in the 1800s, refers to the ability to generate an electric current from a temperature difference between one side of a material and the other. Conversely, applying an electric voltage to a thermoelectric material can cause one side of the material to heat up while the other stays cool, or, alternatively, one side to cool down while the other stays hot.

Devices that incorporate thermoelectric materials have been used in both ways: to create electricity from a heat source, such as the sun, for example, or to cool precision instruments by consuming electricity.

However, the widespread use of thermoelectric materials has been hindered by a fundamental problem that has kept scientists busy for decades. Materials that allow electricity to flow through them also allow heat to flow through them. This means that at the same time a temperature difference creates an electric potential, the temperature difference itself begins to dissipate, weakening the current it created.

Until the 1990s, scientists addressed this problem by looking for materials with intrinsic properties that allowed electricity to flow more easily than heat.

"Until 20 years ago, people were looking at the chemistry of the materials," Hussein said. "And then nanotechnology came into the picture and allowed researchers to engineer the materials for the properties they wanted."

Using nanotechnology, material physicists began creating barriers in thermoelectric materials—such as holes or particles—that impeded the flow of heat more than the flow of electricity. But even under the best scenario, the flow of electrons—which carry electric energy—also was slowed.

In a new study published in the journal Physical Review Letters, Hussein and doctoral student Bruce Davis demonstrate that nanotechnology could be used in an entirely different way to slow the heat transfer without affecting the motion of electrons.

The new concept involves building an array of nanoscale pillars on top of a sheet of a thermoelectric material, such as silicon, to form what the authors call a "nanophononic metamaterial." Heat is carried through the material as a series of vibrations, known as phonons. The atoms making up the miniature pillars also vibrate at a variety of frequencies. Davis and Hussein used a computer model to show that the vibrations of the pillars would interact with the vibrations of the phonons, slowing down the flow of heat. The pillar vibrations are not expected to affect the electric current.

The team estimates that their nanoscale pillars could reduce the heat flow through a material by half, but the reduction could be significantly stronger because the calculations were made very conservatively, Hussein said.

"If we can improve thermoelectric energy conversion significantly, there will be all kinds of important practical applications," Hussein said. These include recapturing the waste heat emitted by different types of equipment—from laptops to cars to power plants—and turning that heat into electricity. Better thermoelectrics also could vastly improve the efficiency of solar panels and refrigeration devices.

The next step is for Hussein to partner with colleagues in the physics department and other institutions to fabricate the pillars so that the idea can be tested in the lab. "This is still early in the phase of laboratory demonstration but the remaining steps are within reach."

Hussein also hopes to further refine the models he used to gain additional insight into the underlying physics. "A team of highly motivated Ph.D. students are working with me around the clock on this project," he said.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation.
Read the study at http://prl.aps.org/abstract/PRL/v112/i5/e055505.

Mahmoud Hussein | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.colorado.edu

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht A New Gateway to the Microcosmos
05.05.2015 | Max-Planck-Institut für Quantenoptik

nachricht Improved detection of radio waves from space
04.05.2015 | Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Pulsar with widest orbit ever detected

Discovered by high school research team

A team of highly determined high school students discovered a never-before-seen pulsar by painstakingly analyzing data from the National Science Foundation's...

Im Focus: Erosion, landslides and monsoon across the Himalaya

Scientists from Nepal, Switzerland and Germany was now able to show how erosion processes caused by the monsoon are mirrored in the sediment load of a river crossing the Himalaya.

In these days, it was again tragically demonstrated that the Himalayas are one of the most active geodynamic regions of the world. Landslides belong to the...

Im Focus: Through the galaxy by taxi - The Dream Chaser Space Utility Vehicle

A world-class prime systems integrator and electronic systems provider known for its rapid, innovative, and agile technology solutions, Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) is currently developing a new space transportation system called the Dream Chaser.

The ultimate aim is to construct a multi-mission-capable space utility vehicle, while accelerating the overall development process for this critical capability...

Im Focus: High-tech textiles – more than just clothes

Today, textiles are used for more than just clothes or bags – they are high tech materials for high-tech applications. High-tech textiles must fulfill a number of functions and meet many requirements. That is why the Fraunhofer Institute for Silicate Research ISC dedicated some major developing work to this most intriguing research area. The result can now be seen at Techtextil trade show in Frankfurt from 4 to 7 May. On display will be novel textile-integrated sensors, a unique multifunctional coating system for textiles and fibers, and textile processing of glass, carbon, and ceramics fibers to fiber preforms.

Thin materials and new kinds of sensors now make it possible to integrate silicone elastomer sensors in textiles. They are suitable for applications in medical...

Im Focus: Fast and Accurate 3-D Imaging Technique to Track Optically-Trapped Particles

KAIST researchers published an article on the development of a novel technique to precisely track the 3-D positions of optically-trapped particles having complicated geometry in high speed in the April 2015 issue of Optica.

Daejeon, Republic of Korea, April 23, 2015--Optical tweezers have been used as an invaluable tool for exerting micro-scale force on microscopic particles and...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Green Summit 2015: the summit of the essential

05.05.2015 | Event News

HHL Energy Conference on May 11/12, 2015: Students Discuss about Decentralized Energy

23.04.2015 | Event News

“Developing our cities, preserving our planet”: Nobel Laureates gather for the first time in Asia

23.04.2015 | Event News

 
Latest News

NASA sees tropical storm noul strengthening, organizing

05.05.2015 | Earth Sciences

Puget Sound's clingfish could inspire better medical devices, whale tags

05.05.2015 | Life Sciences

Green Summit 2015: the summit of the essential

05.05.2015 | Event News

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>