Institute Seminar: Lon Bell

Lon Bell
President, BSST, LLC

Thermoelectrics, potentially an important contributor
to energy savings and greenhouse gas emission reductions

February 2, 2009 | 4:15PM | ESB 2001


Thermoelectric devices are reversible solid state heat engines. If direct electric current is applied, they function as heat pumps, and can be configured as coolers, heaters and refrigerators. If the process is reversed, and a temperature differential is applied, electric power is produced. The promise is that solid state engines can eliminate two phase air conditioning systems and the green house gas emissions present AC systems produce. This has led to great interest in thermoelectric technology. Similarly, the ability to produce electric power from waste heat sources, such as vehicle exhaust, has heightened interest in power generation applications. To date, these promising applications have only been realized in small niche applications because efficiency has been too low to make the technology cost and performance competitive on a broader scale.

Newly developed theoretical approaches have led material advancements with superior properties and higher efficiencies. Contributions from UC Santa Barbara, UC Santa Cruz, Ohio State University and other institutions are creating broad interest, and have caused government agencies including the U S Department of Energy to increase interest and funding in the technology. The prospects have also encouraged commercial companies to invest in the field, both at the R&D level and commercial production. I will discuss the nature of thermoelectric devices, current programs underway, what needs to be done to enable large scale usage, and the benefits to society that success would bring.

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energy efficiency