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Another Cool Clean Technology Innovation You Won’t Hear Much About

Publicly Funded Process Innovation Could Drop the Cost of Energy Efficiency Materials

In October 2011, we got a great response to our article that showed how big breakthroughs in cost or functionality of clean technology often arise from humble innovations in production processes. Here’s another story of how federally funded research is leading to cost savings and new products in the market, adapted from a post originally published at Climate Progress.

New federally funded research could lead to more cost-effective materials for using waste heat for electricity and cooling – opening up innovation in a new class of waste heat conversion technologies. The research was conducted with funding from the Department of Energy’s Energy Frontier Research Centers program, an innovative approach to developing early-stage breakthroughs on the cutting edge of energy technology, and used resources from at Brookhaven National Lab.

High-efficiency thermoelectric materials – technologies that convert heat to electricity, and electricity into refrigeration – have been improved by researchers in New York, who say they have developed a process to increase conversion efficiencies and reduce material costs.

When connected to a circuit and insulated properly, these technologies can contribute significantly to energy efficiency. For example, thermoelectrics are used today in portable, lightweight refrigerators and coolers, as well as in automotive exhausts, where excess heat converted by thermoelectric converters has been found to increase fuel economy by three percent.

Materials scientists and engineers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have developed new processes that allow manufacturers to break down and microwave bismuth telluride, a popular thermoelectric material, into “hexagonal nanoplates”—tiny thermoelectric particles that, when pressed together, form extra-efficient heat (and energy)  transferring materials.

Past advances in the field have been stymied by the lack of ability to produce both electron (“n-type”), and proton-heavy (“p-type”), nanoparticles, both necessary for electricity conversion, and a problem that RPI researchers have overcome:

The technique, presented in a Nature Materials paper posted online last week, makes p-type materials that are as efficient as the best ones on the market, while the n-type materials are at least 25 percent more efficient. One of the biggest commercial thermoelectric device manufacturers is now interested in adopting the new materials and process.

The key breakthrough of the RPI work, according to Badding, is that the researchers are building the nanostructured materials from the bottom up using chemistry. This means they can fine-tune the properties of the building blocks and their assembly to improve the material’s properties. “The way they’re making the material is a big deal,” he says. “The hope is that in the future, this type of approach could lead to better [efficiency].”

The Institute’s advancements in production and process are already being picked up by thermoelectric device manufacturers in the market. These new materials could be used to help cool electronics, large buildings and power vehicles. Not only is this an encouraging story for energy efficiency technologies, but also a textbook example of how our federal innovation system can help not just advance basic understanding of science but also lead to useful new products that solve real problems. This research was funded by two different federal agencies, and the experiments could not have been done without the federal government’s investment in advanced physics equipment at Brookhaven National Lab.

Zachary Rybarczyk is an intern with American Progress’s Energy Department, and a senior at Ohio State University.

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