Decision time? Check out our latest product comparisons

Harnessing waste heat to produce electricity

By

November 19, 2009

A laptop generating a little too much waste heat (Photo: secumem via Wikipedia Commons)

A laptop generating a little too much waste heat (Photo: secumem via Wikipedia Commons)

That heat emanating from your computer as you sit reading this article amounts to nothing more than wasted energy. And your computer is not alone. More than half of the energy consumed worldwide is wasted, most of it in the form of excess heat. But new research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) indicates it might be possible to harvest much of the wasted heat produced by everything from computer processors to car engines and electric powerplants, and convert it into usable electricity. This kind of waste-energy harvesting might lead to mobile phones with double the talk time, laptop computers that can operate twice as long before needing to be plugged in to mains power, or energy plants that produce more electricity for a given amount of fuel.

Theory says that conversion of heat into electricity can never exceed a specific value called the Carnot Limit, based on a 19th Century formula for determining the maximum efficiency that any device can achieve in converting heat into work (energy). But current commercial thermoelectric devices only achieve about one-tenth of that limit. However, in experiments involving a new technology, thermal diodes, an MIT research team has been able to demonstrate efficiency as high as 40 percent of the Carnot Limit, with calculations showing that this new system could ultimately reach as much as 90 percent of that ceiling.

Instead of trying to improve the performance of existing devices, the research team, including Peter Hagelstein, associate professor of electrical engineering, graduate student Dennis Wu and Yan Kucherov, a consultant for the Naval Research Laboratory, started from scratch. The men carried out their analysis using a very simple system in which power was generated by a single quantum-dot device — a type of semiconductor in which the electrons and holes, which carry the electrical charges in the device, are very tightly confined in all three dimensions. By controlling all aspects of the device, they hoped to better understand how to design the ideal thermal-to-electric converter.

Hagelstein says that with present systems it’s possible to efficiently convert heat into electricity, but with very little power. It’s also possible to get plenty of electrical power — what is known as high-throughput power — from a less efficient and, therefore larger and more expensive, system. “It’s a trade off. You either get high efficiency or high throughput,” says Hagelstein. But the team found that using its new system, it would be possible to get both at once, he says.

One of the keys to achieving the improved throughput lay in reducing the separation between the hot surface and the conversion device. Building on a recent finding by MIT professor Gang Chen that showed heat transfer could take place between very closely-spaced surfaces at a rate that is orders of magnitude higher than predicted by theory, the researchers were able to show that heat can not only be transferred, but can also be converted into electricity.

The new technology depends on quantum dot devices, a specialized type of chip in which charged particles are very narrowly confined to a very small region. Such devices are under development, but still a few years away from commercial availability. In the meantime, however, new technology closely related to the work detailed in the MIT research team’s paper could see a tenfold improvement in throughput power over existing photovoltaic devices being developed by a company called MPTV Corp that could be on the market as early as next year.

The MIT research team's paper, “Quantum-coupled single-electron thermal to electric conversion scheme” appears in the Journal of Applied Physics.

Via MIT news

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick
Tags
2 Comments

This is interesting. If it works can be very good though over 40% eff is doubtful..

jerryd
8th December, 2009 @ 04:50 am PST

40% of the carnot limit ,which is pobably about 10% for a low temperature heat source.therefore 4% conversion rate of heat

Jochen Demnitz
19th April, 2010 @ 09:53 pm PDT
Post a Comment

Login with your gizmag account:

Or Login with Facebook:


Related Articles
Looking for something? Search our 29,033 articles