Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are looking to improve the cost and efficiency of thermoelectric materials so they may one day be used for applications like kinetically powered thermoses to keep drinks cool or hot or solar powered car interior cooling systems to keep your car cool on hot summer days.
The cornerstone of the research is that, even in the present, thermoelectric materials are typically very inefficient. An efficient thermoelectric material must be good at conducting electricity, but not heat, a property most do not possess. A current MIT professor, Mildred S. Dresselhaus, and her team are working to address the issue with new composite materials.
What the team found is that engineering tiny structures into the material can alter the conductive behavior. Even structures as small as a few billionths of a meter interfere with the flow of heat, but allow electricity to travel unobstructed. The structures could be as simple as a matrix of nanoscale particles or wires.
...Recent advances in thermoelectric materials have garnered attention from even automotive manufacturers. Most of the energy created from combustion engines is lost as heat, thermoelectric materials may provide a way to utilize this heat in the form of electrical generation for systems in the vehicle. Other technologies, such as photovoltaics, most commonly seen as solar cells, could benefit from the materials as well, using not only the sun's light, but its heat to generate power. Materials could even be built into microchips, greatly enhancing their heat dissipation properties, allowing either cooler running chips, or even faster processing.