When considering the efficiency of most electrical and mechanical appliances, it is evident that some portion of the energy utilized for their operation becomes wasted as heat. If such wasted energy can be utilized to produce electricity, it will not only help to save costs but will also contribute towards saving energy reserves and the environment. Thermoelectricity is the name given to the concept of ‘creating electricity using heat’ and it came into the lime light in the late 19th century. However, due to various scientific barriers, it did not produce itself as a feasible option for ‘re-usable energy’ until recent research shed light to innovative thermoelectric materials.
What are thermoelectric materials?
In most instances, a material that conducts electricity efficiently will conduct heat in a similar manner. However, when a material does not conduct heat efficiently and only conducts electricity, it can maintain a temperature gradient and therefore is considered ideal to be a thermoelectric material. Such materials would be able to generate heat on one surface and cold on the other when given a voltage. At the same time, when it is subjected to heat it will produce electric current, which can be utilized for many purposes.
What are the potential applications of thermoelectric materials?
Although the industry has not yet explored the full potential of thermoelectric materials, several potential uses for which research is underway could be highlighted. These include uses in designing microchips, motor vehicle engines and, photovoltaic cells. More detail on each of these applications follows.
When thermoelectric materials are used to design microchips, it avoids the necessity to fix cooling systems on top of each microchip. Thus, built in cooling systems could make the chips energy efficient and a lot more usable in miniature devices.
Motor vehicle engines
The vehicle engine emits large amount of heat, which indicates the amount of wastage taking place during fuel burning. If incorporated appropriately, thermoelectric materials can generate electricity from the wasted heat and would therefore make the burning of fuel more efficient. Not only would this save costs, but it will also have an effect on the global energy demand, as most of the fuel is used to run vehicles.
These cells are able to capture the light emitted from the sun and convert it into electric current. However, when thermoelectric materials are incorporated into these cells, they can be extra efficient in generating electricity, as it would be able to convert not only the light, but also the heat emanating with the sun's rays.
Although the three examples given above could be considered as the most useful at present time, there are many more potential uses of thermoelectric materials in various industries. These can range from military equipment (such as submarines) to home appliances, which are made to be energy efficient. However, wide scale implementation of the same would take many more years, although recent research indicates a possible acceleration in technologies incorporating such devices.