Science Articles

Thermoelectric Generators - TEGs

Thu, 9th Feb 2012

Turning waste heat into wanted electrical energy...

Laurie Winkless

"In this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics!" H.J. Simpson

It's a fact that almost 70% of the energy released from the fuel by a car engine is lost, mostly in the form of heat. And the turbines that generate most of the world’s Smart carelectrical power manage to convert only about one-third of their energy into electricity.

Sadly, energy is "wasted" like this everywhere. Or, more accurately, ends up in a form that is not useful to us. All mechanical systems produce heat as a by-product but most of the time this valuable energy is just thrown away, or written off as a loss. But thermoelectric materials have been hailed as one solution to this energy problem – they can take heat and convert it into useable electricity. Assembled into so-called thermoelectric generators, or TEGs, they can soak up heat that would otherwise be wasted and produce an electrical current. Critically, they can do it without the requirement for any moving parts. So how do they actually work?

TEGs depend upon a temperature difference to "drive" the device – so one side needs to be hot and the other side cold. This temperature difference makes the electrons one the "hot" side vibrate more vigorously so they tend to move towards the colder side where the electrons are moving more slowly. This movement gives rise to a current that can be tapped off as electricity.

This phenomenon is known as the Peltier–Seebeck effect after its nineteenth Century discoverers, Jean Charles Athanase Peltier and Thomas Johann Seebeck. Seekbeck showed that linking up two different conductors that are at different temperatures results in a voltage being produced between them. Peltier's contribution was the discovery that the junction between two conductors develops a temperature difference when a current is applied. And in a further "effect", Lord Kelvin (also known as William Thomson) demonstrated that the size of this voltage is related to the difference between the two temperatures. So, taken together these effects mean that connecting the right materials together in the presence of a temperature difference converts heat energy into electrical energy, and the bigger the temperature difference, the more electrical power you produce.

But there are complications. The trick with thermoelectrics is that you want the heat to stay at the hot end for as long as possible, keeping the temperature gradient in place, yet still allowing the electrons to flow freely. But this flies in the face of what we understand about thermodynamics, because materials that allow electricity to flow also generally allow heat to flow. So finding a material that does one but not the other is a huge challenge.

That said, materials with high electrical conductivity but low thermal conductivity do exist. In fact, most commercial TEGs contain the rather exotic-sounding bismuth telluride (Bi2Te3), which is about 4% efficient at 250°C. For higher temperatures we need to use silicon and germanium. TEG - thermoelectric generator - the principleThese are more common materials but are much less efficient at turning heat into electricity. Thankfully, scientists are confident that, by resorting to "nanosculpture" to craft the structures of the materials in just the right way, it is possible to create substances that simultaneously impede the flow of heat but are very permissive for the flow of electrons, and this will dramatically improve the efficiency.

But a problem that needs to be solved first is how we actually define the efficiency of thermoelectric generation. This is challenging owing to the complex nature of the materials. For instance, you wouldn’t try to weigh something unless you had a prior concept of mass and some sort of unit or scale, like the kilogram. So one area in which UK scientists at the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington, London, are taking a leading role is in the development of measurement standards against which TEG performance can be rated and compared.

Despite the present stumbling blocks, TEGs are nonetheless playing an active role in assisting researchers in pushing the boundaries of scientific discovery out in space where this technology has successfully powered space probes and missions for the last 50 years. Admittedly, most “local” missions use a combination of solar panels and on-board batteries, but as you move farther from the Sun to explore more distant planets and the outer reaches of our system where the light intensity is much lower, solar panels become impractical. Consequently, space scientists instead resort to radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) to produce power.

The Apollo astronauts relied on these devices during their Moon missions, and the Cassini and Voyager spacecrafts are also powered by on-board RTGs, which work by converting the heat released by the decay of a radioactive source, such as strontium-90 or plutonium-238, into an electric current. In space, the required "cold side" for the device is also easy to supply given that the average temperature is just three degrees above absolute zero (-273.15°C), the temperature at which atoms completely cease all motion.

There are also a number of significant advantages to RTG technology. They can produce power for a very long time, they do not contain any corrosive fluids and they have no moving parts, although critics have expressed concern about the safety of launching radioisotope sources from Earth, so there are tight regulations in place to ensure their safe use.


But what about back down on Earth? Thermoelectrics can help here too. There is a lot of interest in reducing the carbon footprint of your average family car and one way to do this is to improve the overall efficiency. All cars produce a lot of heat, most of lost along the exhaust pipe, but over the last ten TEG for caryears huge leaps have been made in the development of thermoelectric assemblies to "recycle" some of this wasted energy.

Specifically, TEGs can be attached to the outside surfaces of the exhaust pipe. The high-temperature gases passing along inside can be used to heat the "hot side" of the TEGs while the "cold side" is created by using water-filled pipes, or even the air movements created by the motion of the car, to remove heat. Early prototypes of these systems have produced about 600W and reduced fuel consumption by 5%, so they have a lot of potential. BMW, Chevrolet and Volkswagen are all developing TEG systems, so we may see them on cars very soon.

And although thermoelectrics can only capture only a small percentage of the world’s “waste” energy, on a global scale this amounts to a huge potential saving...


Subscribe Free

Related Content


Make a comment

Our Naked Scientists have touched on this before:

So are there any new articles to support:
"BMW, Chevrolet and Volkswagen are all developing TEG systems, so we may see them on cars very soon"  --  ???

I'd be interested to see this moving from the realms of university labs, etc to actually being applied commercially on new vehicles. peppercorn, Fri, 10th Feb 2012

I'm sure they are experimenting with TEGs, but whether they will be commercialized or not is a big question.

There are a couple of problems; one is that, at the moment, their efficiency is low, so, even if you could apply all of the waste heat to the TEG, you'll be lucky to convert 10% of it into work.

That does not sound all that bad until you realize that a lot of the waste heat is dissipated from the engine and the cooling system (I think at least 30%) and it is too cold for a TEG. Pretty soon you are down to 10% of 70% of 70% of the fuel energy, and that's before you convert it back into work!

I believe we really need something with a thermal efficiency of around 50% that can recover the "low grade" energy as well as the "high grade" energy to justify all the extra weight and expense.

BMW did put a steam engine in a car as an energy recovery system for a bit, but I suspect they have chucked it. When you do the calculations, you discover that the work that can be scavenged from the exhaust is rather pathetic. Geezer, Fri, 10th Feb 2012

My point exactly!
Saw this yesterday following on from this question.

There's clearly some interesting new materials coming to the fore, but nothing suggests that these devices are particularly close to graduating to mass-produced vehicles (let alone the family hatchback) any time soon.

This continued obsession with believing that bolting-on fixes to a technology (that is fundamentally more than a century old) is ever going to make more than minuscule improvements in F.E. is fantasy and a waste of resources. .... And time is running out! peppercorn, Sat, 11th Feb 2012

Worth pointing out that there are applications for TEGs in which their inefficiency is actually a bonus. For instance, if you're using a wood burning stove to heat an off-grid home (a boat or cabin, say), you don't want to convert anything close to 100% of that heat energy to electricity. But if you had a stove putting out 5kw of heat 24 hours a day, channelled 20% of that energy into a TEG, and converted 5% of *that* energy to electricity, you'd be getting 1.2kwh of free energy every day without noticing any difference in terms of heating. That's comparable to a 250W solar panel at the height of summer. So stovetop TEGs have huge potential to do the job in winter that solar panels do in summer. Greg, Fri, 23rd Mar 2012

So can we build this thing on the surface of the moon, which always has a hot side and a cold side (except during lunar eclipse maybe) and use it to power a lunar base?

We could start small, close to a pole, and make a bigger system closer to lunar equator later on? Nizzle, Tue, 15th May 2012

That's fine if:
a) You can use 4.95kW of heat energy 24 hours a day every day for a season (ie. winter).
b) You can remove 0.95kW of heat from the cold side of the relatively small surface on the 'cold' side of the TEG fast enough to stop it overheating and energy free.
c) See a Return on Investment in a sensible timeframe to pay for the installation, and then guarantee the TEG devices will continue to work above ~97% efficiency making enough of a profit for a good time after.

Then ask yourself, how does this compare with the price of other more mature technologies to achieve the same thing?  There's Stirling engines, Organic Rankine cycle (ORC) engines or even Woodgas generators powering a old piston engine; alll these can be hooked up to an alternator, or whatever you like!
peppercorn, Wed, 16th May 2012

Kind of like what this interesting new gadget is doing It cooks beans and runs a mobile phone at the same time.  I found this company yesterday, and find it really exciting that they are developing a technology that will make a huge difference to people who cook on biofuels off-grid.  I just wonder how long that thermoelectric generator will last. bonaboots, Wed, 16th May 2012

Just a quick update on this: 1. TEGs are already commercially available, though they are generally used as Peltiers, so to control temperature. In fact they're most often used to keep lasers at very well-defined temperatures. 2. Also interesting are the newer, thin film thermoelectric materials which can harvest very low grade heat - these guys have shown that they can even harvest the heat produced by a fingertip. Link here: 3. BMW have built a prototype TEG assembly and fitted it on one of their cars and have already produced ~600W (when the car is at high speeds - on the motorway, for example). Link here: Laurie , Fri, 8th Feb 2013

Hmmm.. off the top of my head: 1) automotive... to reduce alternator loads alone will not only harness heat for power, but also allow the use of SMALLER alternators to reduce engine drag! a) TEG gasket between cyclinder heads and intake manifolds? b) TEG exhaust pipes? c) TEG on the outside of catalytic converters? d) TEG between inlet/outlet of coolant radiators (powering an electric coolant pump instead of belt or cam driven?) 2) Fireplace - similar to the Ecofan design... but much larger. TEG separator between the intake and exhaust flu for a fireplace could generate serious energy for natural gas customers during an electrical outage. Sure, you can start with powering a fan for a direct-vent fireplace, but the excess energy could be sent to a battery pack to power overhead LED lights for a family sitting in the dark. Maybe even a dedicated low voltage outlet to power an emergency radio, recharge a cellphone or flashlight battery pack. The major limitation of TEGs is cost. Finding a heat source isn't the issue really, the issue is the amount of electricity you get from a large initial investment $$$$ in a proven (UL-certified) application for home/auto owners. Someone's gonna figure out a cheap TEG, even if it's inefficient, and they are gonna make a killing. :) BigDog, Thu, 13th Nov 2014

See the whole discussion | Make a comment

Not working please enable javascript
Powered by UKfast
Genetics Society