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Surprising Material Could Play Role in Saving Energy


One strategy for addressing the world’s energy crisis is to stop wasting so much energy when producing and using it, which can happen in coal-fired power plants or transportation. Nearly two-thirds of energy input is lost as waste heat.

Now Northwestern University scientists, utilizing the instruments of NUANCE, have discovered a surprising material that is the best in the world at converting waste heat to useful electricity. This outstanding property could be exploited in solid-state thermoelectric devices in a variety of industries, with potentially enormous energy savings.

An interdisciplinary research team found the crystal form of the chemical compound tin selenide conducts heat so poorly through its lattice structure that it is the most efficient thermoelectric material known. Unlike most thermoelectric materials, tin selenide has a simple structure, much like that of an accordion, which provides the key to its exceptional properties.

The team was led by Prof. Mercouri G. Kanatzidis (Chemistry), and includes Prof. Vinayak P. Dravid (MSE and Director of the NUANCE Center), Dr. Li-Dong Zhao (Chemistry), Ms. Shih-Han Lo (MSE), Dr. Yongsheng Zhang (MSE), Dr. Hui Sun (Physics, UMich), Dr. Gangjian Tan (Chemistry), Prof. Ctirad Uher (Physics, UMich), Prof. Chris Wolverton (MSE).

Potential areas of application for the high-temperature thermoelectric material include the automobile industry (a significant amount of gasoline’s potential energy goes out of a vehicle’s tailpipe), heavy manufacturing industries (such as glass and brick making, refineries, coal- and gas-fired power plants) and places where large combustion engines operate continuously (such as in large ships and tankers).

View the full article, by Megan Fellman, at the NU News Center.

See Nature article, Ultralow thermal conductivity and high thermoelectric figure of merit in SnSe crystals.