In the Labs: Energy Savings Through Thermoelectric Materials

dresselhauscomputer1.jpgLeave it to the newfound interest in energy savings to liven up decades-old research in what has been a somewhat plodding area of materials science: thermoelectric materials. MIT Institute Professor Mildred S. Dresselhaus (check out her amazing volumes of research) and her co-workers are using nanotechnology to tweak thermoelectric materials, which could create significant energy savings for photovoltaic solar cells, car engines, and even electronic devices.

On Monday, at the annual meeting of the Materials Research Society in Boston, Dresselhaus plans to detail her findings on energy applications from enhanced thermoelectric materials. She’s using nanotechnology to create engineered semiconductor materials, in which nano particles or wires are embedded to alter the behavior of the materials.

The hard science is that when thermoelectric materials are heated they generate an electrical voltage, and when a voltage is applied to the material, one side gets hotter while the other gets colder. These characteristics are already being used to create energy-efficient consumer products, like individual car seats that cool down (without the entire care getting air-conditioned). But the drawback of these materials is that in order to keep one side hot and the other cold, they have to be good electricity conductors but poor heat conductors. That’s hard to find, so Dresselhaus and her crew are using nanotechnology to tinker the material in order to block the heat flow.

Dresselhaus’ team says the technology could be used to make chips with cooling systems built right into them. Another application could be photovoltaic solar cells that not only convert sunlight, but can also tap the sun’s heat. Even car engines could be made more efficient, generating electricity from wasted heat in the system. Sounds like game-changing principles that could provide a breakthrough for multiple industries. The release says her research is currently sponsored by NASA, but we’re waiting to hear back from the lab as to the amount and if other funders are involved.


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