By using nanotechnology, we have found a way to improve an old material by breaking it up and then rebuilding it in a composite of nanostructures in bulk form, said Boston College physicist Zhifeng Ren, one of the leaders of the project. This method is low cost and can be scaled for mass production. This represents an exciting opportunity to improve the performance of thermoelectric materials in a cost-effective manner.
These thermoelectric materials are already used in many applications, but this better material can have a bigger impact, said Gang Chen, the Warren and Towneley Rohsenow Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT and another leader of the project.
At its core, thermoelectricity is the hot and cool issue of physics. Heating one end of a wire, for example, causes electrons to move to the cooler end, producing an electric current. In reverse, applying a current to the same wire will carry heat away from a hot section to a cool section. Phonons, a quantum mode of vibration, play a key role because they are the primary means by which heat conduction takes place in insulating solids.
Bismuth antimony telluride is a material commonly used in thermoelectric products, and the researchers crushed it into a nanoscopic dust and then reconstituted it in bulk form, albeit with nanoscale constituents. The grains and irregularities of the reconstituted alloy dramatically slowed the passage of phonons through the material, radically transforming the thermoelectric performance by blocking heat flow while allowing the electrical flow.
In addition to Ren and six researchers at his BC lab, the international team involved MIT researchers, including Chen and Institute Professor Mildred S. Dresselhaus; research scientist Bed Poudel at GMZ Energy, Inc, a Newton, Mass.-based company formed by Ren, Chen,
|Contact: Ed Hayward|