Thermoelectric materials can be used in all-solid-state devices to convert heat directly into electricity, or they can use electricity to pump heat for refrigeration. Most of the current thermoelectric research at ORNL is focused on converting “waste heat,” such as generated by an automobile, into useful electricity. These applications result in the more efficient use of fossil fuels, and in the case of an automobile or truck, results in better gas mileage. Thermoelectric devices are attractive because they are quiet, use no greenhouse gases, and the only moving parts are electrons and holes. The major drawback of thermoelectric devices is poor efficiency.
ORNL has a worldwide reputation in all areas of fundamental thermoelectric research including the discovery and synthesis of new materials with improved efficiency; cutting edge theoretical modeling and new material concepts; and recognized excellence in thermoelectric property measurements above room temperature. The design of good thermoelectric materials requires an understanding of how to limit or control heat transport in a solid, while not adversely effecting electronic transport. Recent research at ORNL that combined synthesis, inelastic neutron scattering, and theory, has resulted in an unprecedented microscopic understanding of heat transport in a solid. This research not only impacts thermoelectric materials but also impacts all energy technologies that involve the transport of heat. ORNL is the lead of the International Energy Agency (IEA) study on thermoelectrics and the host of the 2014 International Conference on Thermoelectrics.
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