Converting Waste Heat to True Energy

Friday, September 30, 2011 @ 04:09 PM gHale

Waste heat is a byproduct of nearly all electrical devices and industrial processes, from driving a car to flying an aircraft or operating a power plant.

The catch is, there is energy in that waste heat and there may soon be a way to capture it and put it to work. Just ask the engineering researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. They developed new nanomaterials to act as key ingredients for making marble-sized pellets. The new material consists of aluminum and a common, everyday microwave oven.

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Harvesting electricity from waste heat requires a material that is good at conducting electricity but poor at conducting heat. One of the most promising candidates for this job is zinc oxide, a nontoxic, inexpensive material with a high melting point. While nanoengineering techniques exist for boosting the electrical conductivity of zinc oxide, the material’s high thermal conductivity is a roadblock to its effectiveness in collecting and converting waste heat. Because thermal and electrical conductivity are related properties, it’s very difficult to decrease one without also diminishing the other.

There is a new way to decrease zinc oxide’s thermal conductivity without reducing its electrical conductivity, according to a team of researchers led by Ganpati Ramanath, professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Rensselaer, in collaboration with the University of Wollongong, Australia.

The innovation involves adding minute amounts of aluminum to zinc oxide, and processing the materials in a microwave oven. The process is adapted from a technique invented at RPI by Ramanath, graduate student Rutvik Mehta, and Theo Borca-Tasciuc, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering (MANE).

This work could open the door to new technologies for harvesting waste heat and creating highly energy efficient cars, aircraft, power plants, and other systems.

“Harvesting waste heat is a very attractive proposition, since we can convert the heat into electricity and use it to power a device — like in a car or a jet — that is creating the heat in the first place. This would lead to greater efficiency in nearly everything we do and, ultimately, reduce our dependence on fossil fuels,” Ramanath said. “We are the first to demonstrate such favorable thermoelectric properties in bulk-sized high-temperature materials, and we feel that our discovery will pave the way to new power harvesting devices from waste heat.”

To create the new nanomaterial, researchers added minute quantities of aluminum to shape-controlled zinc oxide nanocrystals, and heated them in a $40 microwave oven.

Ramanath’s team is able to produce several grams of the nanomaterial in a matter of few minutes, which is enough to make a device measuring a few centimeters long. The process is less expensive and more scalable than conventional methods and is environmentally friendly, Ramanath said.

Unlike nanomaterials fabricated directly onto a substrate or surface, this new microwave method can produce pellets of nanomaterials that can go on different surfaces. These attributes, together with low thermal conductivity and high electrical conductivity, are highly suitable for heat harvesting applications.

“Our discovery could be key to overcoming major fundamental challenges related to working with thermoelectric materials,” said project collaborator Borca-Tasciuc. “Moreover, our process is amenable to scaling for large-scale production. It’s really amazing that a few atoms of aluminum can conspire to give us thermoelectric properties we’re interested in.”

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