Turning waste heat into Electricity

Courtesy of rochester.edu

Associate Professor of Physics Andrew Jordan and his team have started development on a device that recycles the heat produced by electronics, which can then be used to power that same device.

The project was designed in response to the increasing need for alternative energy.

The work, which took place in Geneva, Switzerland was published on Feb. 13 in Physics Review B.

“Our electronics industry generates a huge amount of waste,” Jordan explained. “Finding practical ways to recycle some of it would be a major development in this area.”

Jordan’s team consists of Rafael Sanchez from the Material Science Institute of Madrid and Bjorn Sothmann and Markus Buttikur from the University of Geneva.

The team developed the major ideas for the current model of their energy harvester in just one week.

“[It was an] extraordinarily productive time,” Jordan said.

According to Jordan, it is an improvement over their previous concept because it is capable of producing more energy. He believes it is an efficient design that could be created with nano-electrical physics. The engine works in a manner similar to a light bulb.

The heat is released from the electronic device that the energy harvester is attached to. It is then directed through a series of nanotunnels that send the heat to quantum dots. The dots heat up and store the energy so that it can be redirected to charge the original electronic device.

“A fixed temperature difference comes from the source of energy, perhaps the heat generated from the computer chip,” Jordan said. “That causes electrons to preferentially move in one direction, depending on the properties of the quantum dots.”

Energy harvesting is one of the newest areas of study in physics and nanotechnology and Jordan is new to the field himself. The current energy harvesting model Jordan’s team is working on is known as the “Swiss Cheese Sandwich,” which is a type of “nano steam locomotive,” Jordan said, but with an important difference.

“There are no moving parts — the engine is entirely electrical, exploiting physical properties of the resonant tunneling quantum dots,” he said. “Electrical power is generated in a circuit that connects one side of the engine to the other, which is all at the same temperature.”

The ability to stack multiple Swiss Cheese Sandwiches to create a network of energy harvesters makes them very versatile, allowing them to fit in everything from a small MP3 player to a motherboard.

While the designs are only in the theoretical stages at this point, this type of technology could be used on almost anything requiring a microchip.

“The paper by Jordan and co-workers finds a seemingly counter-intuitive result; that an electron which is pumpted uphill in energy by simply jumping from a cold to a hot material can serve as a potentially significant power source,” Chemistry professor Todd Krauss said. “The simplicity of the proposed device enabled by semiconductor quantum dot nanotechnology holds great promise.”

The team recently applied for a patent through UR’s Office of Technology Transfer.

O’Brien is a member of the class of 2016.

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