MIT Researches Thermoelectric energy saving solutions

10 December 2007

Thermoelectric materials are already cooling car seats in hot climates in a simple and efficient way. Such devices are providing comfort to an individual rather than cooling an entire car – substantially saving on air conditioning and energy costs.
Basing the research on the principles of thermoelectric cooling and heating (discovered in the early 19th century) project leader, MIT’s Professor Mildred S. Dresselhaus, and team are applying nanotechnology and other cutting-edge technologies to the field.
Thermoelectric devices are based on the fact that when certain materials are heated, they generate a significant electrical voltage. Conversely, when a voltage is applied to them, they become hotter on one side, and colder on the other. Although the process works on a number of materials, it works particularly well with semiconductors – the material used in making computer chips – however, the process has always been very inefficient.

The key to making it more practical, Dresselhaus explained, was in creating engineered semiconductor materials in which tiny patterns have been created to alter the materials’ behaviour. This might include embedding nanoscale particles or wires in a matrix of another material. These nanoscale-structures — just a few billionths of a metre across — interfere with the flow of heat, while allowing electricity to flow freely.
“Making a nanostructure allows you to independently control these qualities,” Dresselhaus added.
The research has generated interest from the US Navy because the technology has potential to produce quieter submarines. Currently, air conditioning and power generation are the noisiest functions on submarines

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