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3D-Printed Thermoelectric Device Sets New Efficiency Record

3D-Printed Thermoelectric Device Sets New Efficiency Record
Researchers have developed a thermoelectric 3D-printed device with the highest conversion efficiency to date.

Researchers in the United Kingdom have made a breakthrough in the performance of 3D-printed electronics that turn waste heat into energy with a new thermoelectric device created through a novel fabrication method.

The device—developed by researchers at Swansea University’s SPECIFIC Innovation and Knowledge Centre—converts heat to electricity with 50 percent more efficiency than the previous best performance of a printed device, researchers said. The center is aimed at developing technologies for reducing carbon emissions for applications including more efficient buildings and industrial processes. 

Thermal camera image of a device developed by researchers at Swansea University achieving record-breaking efficiency using new printed thermoelectric material. (Image source: Swansea University)

Researchers hope their work can be used to develop technology that can take waste heat—which is what about 1/6 of the energy used by industry in the United Kingdom becomes—to create electricity. Scientists believe this is a step forward in helping industry in the United Kingdom cut its energy bills and reduce its carbon footprint.

“Turning waste heat into electrical power can boost energy efficiency significantly, cutting bills and reducing carbon emissions,” said Matt Carnie, an associate professor of engineering at the university who led the research team.

Thermoelectric materials already are used in refrigerators, power plants, and even some smart watches to turn differences in temperature into electric power, or vice versa.

Cheaper Material Fabrication

Researchers achieved their results by developing a more efficient and cheaper way to produce a key material for the device, tinselenide.

Scientists long have known that this compound, comprised of tin and selenium, has had high potential as a thermoelectric material. However, traditional methods to manufacture this compound are energy intensive and thus expensive.

Carnie’s team figured out a way around this by first developing an ink made of tin selenide that they can print to test its properties,­­­ and then a 3D-printing technique that uses that ink to produce a small thermoelectric generator.

In experiments, the devices outperformed previously developed 3D-printed thermoelectric materials, achieving a 1.7 on the “figure of merit” scale for measuring performance of such devices. Previously, the best performance achieved by a similar device was 1.0, researchers said. Moreover, the device developed by the Swansea team turned heat into electricity at an efficiency rate of 9.5 percent, compared to 4.5 percent for the previous best performance.

“Our findings show that printed thermoelectric materials using tin selenide are a very promising way forward,” Carnie said. “The device we developed is the best-performing printed thermoelectric material recorded to date, with the efficiency factor improved by over 50 percent compared to the previous record.”

The device also is cheap to produce in bulk compared with established manufacturing methods, he added. The team published a paper on its work in the journal Advanced Energy Materials.

Researchers believe the device could be of particular use to industries where high temperatures are involved in the manufacturing process, such as the steel industry, which generates vast amounts of heat while requiring immense electrical power, they said.

The team plans to continue its work to optimize the device and explore its various applications, Carnie said.

“More work is needed, but already our work shows that this technique, combining efficiency and economy, could be very attractive to energy-intensive industries.”

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco and New York City. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

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