Surprising Material Could Play Role in Saving Energy



Megan Fellman writes for Northwestern University:

One strategy for addressing the world’s energy crisis is to stop wasting so much energy when producing and using it, which can happen in coal-fired power plants or transportation. Nearly two-thirds of energy input is lost as waste heat.

Now Northwestern University scientists have discovered a surprising material that is the best in the world at converting waste heat to useful electricity. This outstanding property could be exploited in solid-state thermoelectric devices in a variety of industries, with potentially enormous energy savings.

An interdisciplinary team led by inorganic chemist Mercouri G. Kanatzidis found the crystal form of the chemical compound tin selenide conducts heat so poorly through its lattice structure that it is the most efficient thermoelectric material known. Unlike most thermoelectric materials, tin selenide has a simple structure, much like that of an accordion, which provides the key to its exceptional properties.

The efficiency of waste heat conversion in thermoelectrics is reflected by its figure of merit, called ZT. Tin selenide exhibits a ZT of 2.6, the highest reported to date at around 650 degrees Celsius. The material’s extremely low thermal conductivity boosts the ZT to this high level, while still retaining good electrical conductivity.

The ZT metric represents a ratio of electrical conductivity and thermoelectric power in the numerator (which needs to be high) and thermal conductivity in the denominator (which needs to be low).

Potential areas of application for the high-temperature thermoelectric material include the automobile industry (a significant amount of gasoline’s potential energy goes out of a vehicle’s tailpipe), heavy manufacturing industries (such as glass and brick making, refineries, coal- and gas-fired power plants) and places where large combustion engines operate continuously (such as in large ships and tankers).

“A good thermoelectric material is a business proposition — as much commercial as it is scientific,” said Vinayak P. Dravid, a senior researcher on the team. “You don’t have to convert much of the world’s wasted energy into useful energy to make a material very exciting. We need a portfolio of solutions to the energy problem, and thermoelectric materials can play an important role.”

Dravid is the Abraham Harris Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Details of tin selenide, probably among the world’s least thermally conductive crystalline materials, are published today (April 17) by the journal Nature.

The discovery comes less than two years after the same research group broke the world record with another thermoelectric material they developed in the lab with a ZT of 2.2.

“The inefficiency of current thermoelectric materials has limited their commercial use,” said Kanatzidis, the Charles E. and Emma H. Morrison Professor of Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “We expect a tin selenide system implemented in thermoelectric devices to be more efficient than other systems in converting waste heat to useful electricity.”

The material, despite having a very simple structure, conducts heat so poorly that even moderate thermoelectric power and electrical conductivity are enough to provide high thermoelectric performance at high temperature.

The researchers did not expect to find tin selenide to be such a good thermoelectric material.

Read more here.

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  • aaron

    I do see multiple uses and benefits for this.

    Although I must say we cant even get our government and power companies to upgrade our aging power grid that majority of was built like 40 or more years ago. Good luck getting them to implement this….

    These old power lines provide so much resistance they have to send substantial amounts more of electricity than needed just for the required voltage and amperage needed at the custmers end. There would be far less electricity used if they upgraded them just to some technology built this millennia or even better upgraded them to super conductive materials. The US electrical infrastructure is in the stone age compaired to a lot of other industrialized countries.

  • ÿ

    Cool beans.

    Where is the Global Manhattan Project™ to implement this, and other new and exciting discoveries in the field of getting our collective shit together?

    • kowalityjesus

      yeah man. I think about nitinol, developed in the 70s when I see this. If the fossil fuel industry isn’t dragging their feet, then they are actively threatening competitors or planting car bombs, j/k about that last one.

      The more I think about it, the more I sort of understand and am complicit with the current order. I don’t like to think of it as fatalism. More like being a conscientious, though complicit, objector.