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Structural distortions emerge from nothing at the nanoscale
Date:12/16/2010

is random flipping behavior that is key to the materials' ability to convert heat into electricity.

"The randomly flipping dipoles impede the movement of heat through the material in much the same way that it is more difficult to move through a disorderly wood than an orderly apple orchard where the trees are lined up in rows," Billinge says. "This low thermal conductivity allows a large temperature gradient to be maintained across the sample, which is crucial to the thermoelectric properties."

When one side of the material comes in contact with heat - say, in the exhaust system of a car - the gradient will cause charge carriers in the thermoelectric material (e.g., electrons) to diffuse from the hot side to the cold side. Capturing this thermally induced electric current could put the "waste" heat to use.

This research may help scientists search for other thermoelectric materials with exceptional properties, since it links the good thermoelectric response to the existence of fluctuating dipoles.

"Our next step will be searching for new materials that show this novel phase transition, and finding other structural signatures for this behavior," Billinge said. "The new tools that allow us to probe nanoscale structures are essential to this research.

"Such studies of complex materials at the nanoscale hold the key to many of the transformative technological breakthroughs we seek to solve problems in energy, health, and the environment."


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Contact: Karen McNulty Walsh
kmcnulty@bnl.gov
631-344-8350
DOE/Brookhaven National Laboratory
Source:Eurekalert

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