Nanostructured Thermoelectric Devices (And John W. Campbell, Jr.)

Nanostructured thermoelectric devices may have a wide variety of practical applications, according to scientists Heiner Linke and Tammy Humphrey.

Thermoelectric materials try to recover this energy by converting it to electricity, but they don't work very well if the flow of heat is uncontrolled. The breakthrough presented by Humphrey and Linke involves controlling the motion of electrons using materials that are structured on the nanoscale.

"The idea is to play one type of non-equilibrium (the temperature difference) against another one," Linke explains.

Humphrey and Linke have shown that if an electrical voltage is applied to an electrical system in addition to a temperature difference, it is possible to harness electrons having a specific energy. This means that if a nanostructured material is designed to only allow electrons with this particular energy to flow, a novel type of equilibrium is achieved in which electrons do not spontaneously ferry heat from hot to cold. "This delicate balance may have huge practical importance because it means that thermoelectric devices, which use electrical contact between hot and cold regions in a semiconductor to transform heat into useful electrical energy, can be operated near equilibrium," says Humphrey. "This is a key requirement for cranking up their efficiency toward the Carnot limit, the maximum efficiency possible for any heat engine."
(From Scientists discover a better way to generate power from thermal sources)

This technology could make a whole range of devices possible:

  • from refrigeration without pumps
  • long-term battery-powered "cold packs"
  • PCs without power fans
  • Recovered energy from wasteful applications like car engines.
In his 1935 story Blindness, John W. Campbell, Jr. wrote about a material called thermlectrium, a metal alloy with a very special microscopic structure that allowed it to convert heat directly to electricity using waste heat, or even the heat of the open air.

The result:

"Every home, every store, every man, has his private thermlectrium element. Every car and every vehicle is powered by it." (Read more about thermlectrium)

Read more about it from Scientists discover a better way to generate power from thermal sources; see also the related story from a very interesting blog at Reversible thermoelectric nanomaterials. Thanks to Winchell Chung for the idea for this story.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 4/7/2005)

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