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Common mineral could form basis of new thermoelectric material

28 November 2012

Using materials that are abundant in the environment, a team of Michigan State University researchers claims to have developed a new thermoelectric material.

MSU doctoral student Xu Lu is part of a team that has developed a new thermoelectric material. Photo by G L Kohuth

The Michigan State University (MSU) researchers, led by Donald Morelli, a professor of chemical engineering and materials science, developed the material based on natural minerals known as tetrahedrites.

“What we’ve managed to do is synthesize some compounds that have the same composition as natural minerals,” said Morelli. “The mineral family that they mimic is one of the most abundant minerals of this type on Earth – tetrahedrites. By modifying its composition in a very small way, we produced highly efficient thermoelectric materials.”

Morelli said that while some new, more efficient materials have been discovered as of late, many of those are not suitable for large-scale applications because they are derived from rare or sometimes toxic elements, or the synthesis procedures are complex and costly.

“Typically you’d mine minerals, purify them into individual elements, and then recombine those elements into new compounds that you anticipate will have good thermoelectric properties,” he said. “But that process costs a lot of money and takes a lot of time. Our method bypasses much of that.”

The MSU researchers’ method involves the use of very common materials, grinding them to a powder, then using pressure and heat to compress into usable sizes.

The researchers expect this discovery could pave the way to many new, low-cost thermoelectric generation opportunities with applications that include waste heat recovery from industrial power plants, conversion of vehicle exhaust gas heat into electricity, and generation of electricity in home-heating furnaces.

For more information on the Center for Revolutionary Materials for Solid State Energy Conversion, click here


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