Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Turning Waste Heat Into Power

29.09.2010
University of Arizona physicists have discovered a new way of harvesting waste heat and turning it into electrical power. Taking advantage of quantum effects, the technology holds great promise for making cars, power plants, factories and solar panels more efficient.

What do a car engine, a power plant, a factory and a solar panel have in common? They all generate heat – a lot of which is wasted. University of Arizona physicists have discovered a new way of harvesting waste heat and turning it into electrical power.

Using a theoretical model of a so-called molecular thermoelectric device, the technology holds great promise for making cars, power plants, factories and solar panels more efficient, to name a few possible applications. In addition, more efficient thermoelectric materials would make ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, obsolete.

The research group led by Charles Stafford, associate professor of physics, published its findings in the September issue of the scientific journal, ACS Nano.

"Thermoelectricity makes it possible to cleanly convert heat directly into electrical energy in a device with no moving parts," said lead author Justin Bergfield, a doctoral candidate in the UA College of Optical Sciences.

"Our colleagues in the field tell us they are pretty confident that the devices we have designed on the computer can be built with the characteristics that we see in our simulations."

"We anticipate the thermoelectric voltage using our design to be about 100 times larger than what others have achieved in the lab," Stafford added.

Catching the energy lost through waste heat has been on the wish list of engineers for a long time but, so far, a concept for replacing existing devices that is both more efficient and economically competitive has been lacking.

Unlike existing heat-conversion devices such as refrigerators and steam turbines, the devices of Bergfield and Stafford require no mechanics and no ozone-depleting chemicals. Instead, a rubber-like polymer sandwiched between two metals acting as electrodes can do the trick. Car or factory exhaust pipes could be coated with the material, less than 1 millionth of an inch thick, to harvest energy otherwise lost as heat and generate electricity.

The physicists take advantage of the laws of quantum physics, a realm not typically tapped into when engineering power-generating technology. To the uninitiated, the laws of quantum physics appear to fly in the face of how things are "supposed" to behave.

The key to the technology lies in a quantum law physicists call wave-particle duality: Tiny objects such as electrons can behave either as a wave or as a particle.

"In a sense, an electron is like a red sports car," Bergfield said. "The sports car is both a car and it's red, just as the electron is both a particle and a wave. The two are properties of the same thing. Electrons are just less obvious to us than sports cars."

Bergfield and Stafford discovered the potential for converting heat into electricity when they studied polyphenyl ethers, molecules that spontaneously aggregate into polymers, long chains of repeating units. The backbone of each polyphenyl ether molecule consists of a chain of benzene rings, which in turn are built from carbon atoms. The chain link structure of each molecule acts as a "molecular wire" through which electrons can travel.

"We had both worked with these molecules before and thought about using them for a thermoelectric device," Bergfield said, "but we hadn't really found anything special about them until Michelle Solis, an undergrad who worked on independent study in the lab, discovered that, low and behold, these things had a special feature."

Using computer simulations, Bergfield then "grew" a forest of molecules sandwiched between two electrodes and exposed the array to a simulated heat source.

"As you increase the number of benzene rings in each molecule, you increase the power generated," Bergfield said.

The secret to the molecules' capability to turn heat into power lies in their structure: Like water reaching a fork in a river, the flow of electrons along the molecule is split in two once it encounters a benzene ring, with one flow of electrons following along each arm of the ring.

Bergfield designed the benzene ring circuit in such a way that in one path the electron is forced to travel a longer distance around the ring than the other. This causes the two electron waves to be out of phase once they reunite upon reaching the far side of the benzene ring. When the waves meet, they cancel each other out in a process known as quantum interference. When a temperature difference is placed across the circuit, this interruption in the flow of electric charge leads to the buildup of an electric potential – voltage – between the two electrodes.

Wave interference is a concept exploited by noise-canceling headphones: Incoming sound waves are met with counter waves generated by the device, wiping out the offending noise.

"We are the first to harness the wave nature of the electron and develop a concept to turn it into usable energy," Stafford said.

Analogous to solid state versus spinning hard drive type computer memory, the UA-designed thermoelectric devices require no moving parts. By design, they are self-contained, easier to manufacture and easier to maintain compared to currently available technology.

"You could just take a pair of metal electrodes and paint them with a single layer of these molecules," Bergfield said. "That would give you a little sandwich that would act as your thermoelectric device. With a solid-state device you don't need cooling agents, you don't need liquid nitrogen shipments, and you don't need to do a lot of maintenance."

"You could say, instead of Freon gas, we use electron gas," Stafford added.

"The effects we see are not unique to the molecules we used in our simulation," Bergfield said. "Any quantum-scale device where you have a cancellation of electric charge will do the trick, as long as there is a temperature difference. The greater the temperature difference, the more power you can generate."

Molecular thermoelectric devices could help solve an issue currently plaguing photovoltaic cells harvesting energy from sunlight.

"Solar panels get very hot and their efficiency goes down," Stafford said. "You could harvest some of that heat and use it to generate additional electricity while simultaneously cooling the panel and making its own photovoltaic process more efficient."

"With a very efficient thermoelectric device based on our design, you could power about 200 100-Watt light bulbs using the waste heat of an automobile," he said. "Put another way, one could increase the car's efficiency by well over 25 percent, which would be ideal for a hybrid since it already uses an electrical motor."

So, next time you watch a red sports car zip by, think of the hidden power of the electron and how much more efficient that sports car could be with a thermoelectric device wrapped around its exhaust pipe.

Reference: Giant Thermoelectric Effect from Transmission Supernodes. Justin Bergfield, Michelle Solis, and Charles Stafford.

ACS Nano, 2010, 4 (9), pp 5314–5320

Funding for this research was provided by the UA physics department.

CONTACTS:

Charles Stafford, Department of Physics, The University of Arizona, stafford@physics.arizona.edu; (520) 626-4260

Justin Bergfield, College of Optical Sciences, The University of Arizona, justinb@email.arizona.edu

Daniel Stolte, Office of Communications,

The University of Arizona,
(520) 626-4402; stolte@email.arizona.edu

Daniel Stolte | University of Arizona
Further information:
http://www.arizona.edu

More articles from Power and Electrical Engineering:

nachricht A paper battery powered by bacteria
21.08.2018 | American Chemical Society

nachricht Converting wind power for storage purposes
21.08.2018 | FIZ Karlsruhe – Leibniz-Institut für Informationsinfrastruktur GmbH

All articles from Power and Electrical Engineering >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

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

Im Focus: It’s All in the Mix: Jülich Researchers are Developing Fast-Charging Solid-State Batteries

There are currently great hopes for solid-state batteries. They contain no liquid parts that could leak or catch fire. For this reason, they do not require cooling and are considered to be much safer, more reliable, and longer lasting than traditional lithium-ion batteries. Jülich scientists have now introduced a new concept that allows currents up to ten times greater during charging and discharging than previously described in the literature. The improvement was achieved by a “clever” choice of materials with a focus on consistently good compatibility. All components were made from phosphate compounds, which are well matched both chemically and mechanically.

The low current is considered one of the biggest hurdles in the development of solid-state batteries. It is the reason why the batteries take a relatively long...

Im Focus: Color effects from transparent 3D-printed nanostructures

New design tool automatically creates nanostructure 3D-print templates for user-given colors
Scientists present work at prestigious SIGGRAPH conference

Most of the objects we see are colored by pigments, but using pigments has disadvantages: such colors can fade, industrial pigments are often toxic, and...

Im Focus: Unraveling the nature of 'whistlers' from space in the lab

A new study sheds light on how ultralow frequency radio waves and plasmas interact

Scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles present new research on a curious cosmic phenomenon known as "whistlers" -- very low frequency packets...

Im Focus: New interactive machine learning tool makes car designs more aerodynamic

Scientists develop first tool to use machine learning methods to compute flow around interactively designable 3D objects. Tool will be presented at this year’s prestigious SIGGRAPH conference.

When engineers or designers want to test the aerodynamic properties of the newly designed shape of a car, airplane, or other object, they would normally model...

Im Focus: Robots as 'pump attendants': TU Graz develops robot-controlled rapid charging system for e-vehicles

Researchers from TU Graz and their industry partners have unveiled a world first: the prototype of a robot-controlled, high-speed combined charging system (CCS) for electric vehicles that enables series charging of cars in various parking positions.

Global demand for electric vehicles is forecast to rise sharply: by 2025, the number of new vehicle registrations is expected to reach 25 million per year....

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

LaserForum 2018 deals with 3D production of components

17.08.2018 | Event News

Within reach of the Universe

08.08.2018 | Event News

A journey through the history of microscopy – new exhibition opens at the MDC

27.07.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

Air pollution leads to cardiovascular diseases

21.08.2018 | Ecology, The Environment and Conservation

Researchers target protein that protects bacteria's DNA 'recipes'

21.08.2018 | Life Sciences

A paper battery powered by bacteria

21.08.2018 | Power and Electrical Engineering

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>