U.Va., Clemson Researchers Convert Waste Heat into Electrical Energy

October 31, 2013

The University of Virginia and Clemson University will compete on the football field this weekend, but researchers from these two institutions are working together to convert waste heat into high-quality electricity.

The researchers say that the conversion of waste heat into electrical energy will play a role in today’s challenge to identify alternative energy technologies that reduce dependence on fossil fuels and lessen greenhouse gas emissions.

Joseph Poon, William Barton Rogers Professor of Physics and chair of U.Va.’s Department of Physics, and Terry Tritt, Alumni Distinguished Professor at Clemson’s physics and astronomy department, are developing thermoelectric materials that provide direct conversion of heat into electricity.

“In the last decade, there have been continuous improvements in the science and production of thermoelectric materials,” Poon said. “Thermoelectric materials can now be incorporated into power-generation devices that are designed to convert waste heat into useful electrical energy.”

Thermoelectric materials and devices are already being used in automobiles, including the GM Suburban and the BMW X5. The installed devices convert heat from the exhaust system into high-quality electricity for the automobile, recovering part of more than 60 percent of waste heat that is lost relative to the input energy.

The university researchers have investigated several materials, including half Heusler alloys and silicon-germanium, or SiGe, to understand the effect of core shell thermoelectric materials, under a Department of Energy grant with Lee Williams, a research scientist at NanoSonic Inc., a Blacksburg company that specializes in advanced materials.

“We are paying particular attention to SiGe, a robust thermoelectric material used in many high-temperature applications like NASA’s deep space probes,” Poon said. “We are working to improve the thermoelectric performance of these materials by using nanoparticles that are surrounded by a specific chemical shell.”

Moving forward, the team hopes to find new sources of waste heat and develop thermoelectric devices to capture the large amount of the waste heat that the world produces. They’re also working on thermoelectric cooling materials that will provide zonal cooling for automobiles.

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Fariss Samarrai

University News Associate Office of University Communications