What is Thermoelectricity?

Thermoelectricity means to gain electricity directly from the heat difference of two parts of a material – and it can also work in reverse. This means that by introducing an electric current, the material could be either heated or cooled down. The technology has already been used for power generation in spaceships, and the reverse is applied for heating car seats, food carriers or computer chips.

One of the main challenges of thermoelectricity is to find the right material. The perfect material should conduct electricity well but not heat, in order to work appropriately. This is rather hard to find and so nano-scientists have been working on solving this issue. A Norwegian team for example recently introduced nanoscale-barriers into common semiconductors, which helped them in lowering heat conductivity, while keeping the electronic conductivity – just what’s needed for utilising thermoelectricity.

Thermoelectric materials may be ideal for ‘replacing’ current photovoltaic (PV) cells, according to some scientists. This would be thanks to the fact that they can utilise a much broader spectrum of solar energy, and thus they could provide better performance. A Professor from the University of Arizona recently suggested that thermoelectric paint on top of roofs with solar panels could be applied to achieve better performance and eventually for lowering costs.

Thermoelectricity could also be a great solution for using up waste heat. Waste heat is the energy created by machines that is not utilised for anything. According to estimates this is currently about half of all energy in the world, and is generated by industrial processes, combustion engines and power generation, amongst others.

Thus if the right materials are identified or created thanks to nanotechnology, thermoelectricity could be one of the key future technologies, which could help in various fields.

Written for the Energy Saving Warehouse

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