Discovery of thermoelectric materials paves the way for new forms of electrical energy in the future – sciencedaily

Thermoelectrics directly convert heat into electricity and power a wide range of items – from NASA’s Perseverance rover currently exploring Mars to travel coolers that cool drinks.

A physicist at Clemson University has teamed up with collaborators from China and Denmark to create a potentially revolutionary new high-performance thermoelectric compound.

The atomic structure of a material, which is how atoms organize themselves in space and time, determines its properties. Typically, solids are crystalline or amorphous. In crystals, atoms are in an ordered and symmetrical pattern. Amorphous materials have randomly distributed atoms.

Clemson researcher Jian He and the international team have created a new hybrid compound in which crystalline and amorphous sub-arrays are intertwined in a unique crystal-amorphous duality.

“Our material is a unique hybrid atomic structure, half of which is crystalline and half of which is amorphous,” said He, an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the College of Sciences. “If you have a unique or particular atomic structure, you would expect to see very unusual properties because the properties follow the structure.”

The high-level energy research journal Joule published their findings in an article titled “Thermoelectric Materials with Crystal-Amorphicity-Induced Large Atomic Size Mismatch”, which appeared online the April 16 ahead of the May 19 issue.

The researchers created their hybrid material by intentionally mixing elements from the same group on the periodic table but with different atomic sizes. Here they used the atomic size disparities between sulfur and tellurium and between copper and silver to create a new compound (Cu1 – xAgX)2(AT1 – andSYes) in which the crystalline and amorphous sub-arrays intertwine into a unique crystal-amorphicity duality. The new compound exhibited excellent thermoelectric performance.

While this finding does not have a direct impact on the application currently, it is likely to lead to better thermoelectrics in the future.

“The new material works well, but more importantly is how it achieves that level of performance,” he said. “Traditionally, thermoelectric materials have been crystals. Our material is not pure crystal, and we are showing that we can achieve the same level of performance with a material with a new atomic structure.”

He said he expects the new hardware to start affecting applications in 10 to 20 years.

“They can certainly do something that current thermoelectric materials cannot do, but not now,” he said. “However, the future of this research is bright.”

Besides He, the research involved scientists from Shanghai Jiaotong University, Shanghai Institute of Ceramics and SUSTech in China, and Aarhus University in Denmark.

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