New technology to convert wasted heat into power

September 21st, 2011 - 1:52 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Sep 21 (IANS) Imagine thermoelectric materials that capture the bulk of energy lost by cars and machines as heat and convert them into electricity. Thermoelectric generation captures waste heat from car exhaust or a whirring machine and converts them into electricity. Scientists have developed this technology based on a device found from kitchens to dorm rooms: a microwave oven.

“This is really quite fascinating,” said Mas Subramanian, professor of materials science at Oregon State University. “It’s the first time we’ve ever used microwave technology to produce this class of materials.”

The problem of wasted energy is huge, but it could be trapped to power the car, the journal Materials Research Bulletin reports.

Oregon researchers have used simple microwave energy to fabricate ’skutterudites,’ a class of compounds that convert waste heat into power in mere minutes, instead of the days the existing process took, according to an Oregon statement.

You’re not supposed to put metal foil into a microwave because it will cause sparks.

But powdered metals are different. Oregon scientists are tapping into that phenomenon to heat materials to 1,800 degrees in just a few minutes - on purpose, and with hugely useful results.

These findings should speed research and ultimately provide a more commercially-useful, low-cost path to a future of thermoelectric energy.

NASA has used some expensive and high-tech thermoelectric generators to produce electricity in outer space.

“To address this, we need materials that are low cost, non-toxic and stable, and highly efficient at converting low-grade waste heat into electricity,” Subramanian said.

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