Nearly 70 percent of the energy produced in the United States each year is wasted as heat. Much of that heat is less than 100 degrees Celsius and emanates from things like computers, cars or large industrial processes. Engineers at the University of California, Berkeley, have developed a thin-film system that can be applied to sources of waste heat like these to produce energy at levels unprecedented for this kind of technology.
The thin-film system uses a process called pyroelectric energy conversion, which the engineers’ new study demonstrates is well suited for tapping into waste-heat energy supplies below 100 degrees Celsius, called low-quality waste heat. Pyroelectric energy conversion, like many systems that turn heat into energy, works best using thermodynamic cycles, kind of like how a car engine works. But unlike the engine in your car, pyroelectric energy conversion can be realized entirely in the solid state with no moving parts as it turns waste heat into electricity.
The new results suggest that this nanoscopic thin-film technology might be particularly attractive for installing on and harvesting waste heat from high-speed electronics but could have a large scope of applications. For fluctuating heat sources, the study reports that the thin film can turn waste heat into useable energy with higher energy density, power density and efficiency levels than other forms of pyroelectric energy conversion.
“We know we need new energy sources, but we also need to do better at utilizing the energy we already have,” said senior author Lane Martin, associate professor of materials science and engineering. “These thin films can help us squeeze more energy than we do today out of every source of energy.”
The research will be published April 16 in the journal Nature Materials. The research was supported, in part, by grants from the Army Research Office and the National Science Foundation.