NASA’s Curiosity rover features a nuclear battery that uses thermoelectric materials to convert heat into electricity. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)
Transitioning to clean energy has become urgent now that humanity must find a way to limit Earth’s rising temperature to within 1.5 C, keeping the worst climate change effects at bay. This is certainly problematic, especially due to the rising global energy demand. Using energy more efficiently could help solve that issue. Over 72% of the energy generated globally dissipates into the air as heat. So using thermoelectric materials to recover and convert heat into electricity could help in the fight against climate change.
Identifying suitable materials had been a slow process. Jan-Hendrik Pöhls and his team at McMaster University ran quantum computations to perform that process at a quicker pace while identifying over 500 thermoelectric materials that could convert heat into electricity and improve energy efficiency.
Currently, thermoelectric applications range from space probes to cooling devices integrated into portable refrigerators. Space explorations rely on radioisotope thermoelectric generators that convert plutonium’s heat into electricity. However, commercializing thermoelectric materials has been limited due to their low efficiency. Two factors are holding them back: the materials’ conductive properties and their ability to maintain a temperature difference, making it possible to produce energy.
Researchers from Seoul National University, Aachen University, and Northwestern University recently reported they engineered a tin selenide material that achieves the highest thermoelectric performance, taking them nearly ten years to optimize.
The McMaster team used quantum calculations to discover new thermoelectric materials containing high efficiencies. They searched a database with thousands of materials to identify those with high electronic qualities and low heat conduction levels. These helped them discover the materials to synthesize, test, and calculate their thermoelectric efficiency. Even though thermoelectric materials are almost ready for everyday applications, we still need to develop more efficient materials.
Larger applications require affordable, non-toxic, and abundant thermoelectric materials. For example, lead and tellurium are used in thermoelectric materials. Their cost and impact on the environment mean they’re more likely to be replaced. Quantum calculations can then help search for a combination of materials that work well together by using parameters such as scarcity, cost, and efficiency.
Government-operated laboratories and universities in the United States, Canada, and Europe revealed over 500 unexplored materials featuring high thermoelectric efficiency. The McMaster University team is conducting experiments to determine the materials’ thermoelectric performance. So far, they have discovered new sources of high thermoelectric efficiency. These results demonstrate that quantum computers can find the most efficient sets of materials to produce clean energy from excess heat.
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