Thermoelectric Materials

Ever since thermoelectricity was first discovered in 1821, scientists have been working hard to further develop its principles and applications. When new discoveries are made, more ideas come from them, and more advancement occurs. Thermoelectricity revolves around the concept that when certain materials are heated, they generate significant amounts of electrical voltage.  Conversely, when voltage is applied to these same materials, they become hotter on one side and colder on the other. 

There are currently many applications for thermoelectric materials present in the world today, however their use is not yet economical enough for them to be very widespread. These materials are able to convert heat into electricity and electricity into heat, however the process is expensive, and the pumps used are not seen as efficient enough to be practical in many proven and possible applications. On the bright side though, improvements and innovations are being made continually so that the use of thermoelectric materials is likely to continue to increase as time goes on.

Thermoelectric materials are constantly being tested to see if they can be used economically to convert waste heat into electricity. Currently, about 90% of the world’s electricity is generated by heat energy, but operates at only 30 to 40% efficiency. They are also used in refrigeration, however their use in this process is a lot less prevalent than vapor-compression refrigeration which is currently what is used in most refrigeration and air-conditioning units, due to it being more economical for the time being. However, thermoelectric materials bring many advantages to the refrigeration process. For example, they are small in size, have a flexible shape, and do not have any moving parts or circulating liquid. Additionally, they do not require refrigerant liquids such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that are known to have negative effects on the environment. 

Thermoelectric materials could also be used in vehicles to make their engines a great deal more efficient than they currently are today, as up to 80% of the fuel’s energy is wasted in the form of heat. Studies have been done to prove this, but so far, the process is still too expensive to be practical. However, this may be the first area where thermoelectric materials are used in a more widespread fashion, since so much fuel is used for transportation every day and is a huge part of energy use in the world. More and more automakers are becoming more and more interested in this technology all the time. 

Thermoelectric materials are already used as a simple and efficient way of cooling car seats in hot climates. These devices are similar to car-seat heaters that are more familiar, and provide comfort directly to the individual, rather than cooling the entire car, which in turn saves on air-conditioning and overall energy costs.

As more and more ways can be found to use thermoelectric materials both efficiently and economically, they will be present more and more in everyday life. While they have many applications, they are currently only used in limited situations due to their high cost and impracticality.