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NanoKTN publishes position paper on thermoelectrics

31 January 2012

The Nanotechnology Knowledge Transfer Network (NanoKTN) has published a position paper following a one-day workshop held last year to explore emerging technologies and opportunities in the development of next generation thermoelectric and thermionic devices. Thermal energy harvesting (and solid state cooling) represents a global £1bn industry for improved products in a range of markets and applications.

However, barriers exist to widespread adoption, and it is concluded that nanotechnology offers the potential for new approaches and a paradigm shift in performance through nanomaterials development, nanostructuring, nano- and microelectronic devices and thin film technologies.

The event that sparked the report was held in April 2011. Hosted in partnership with Johnson Matthey and Royal Holloway University of London, it saw presentations from key players in industry and academia, including Jaguar Land Rover, and highlighted the huge commercial potential in harvesting energy from waste heat, but also the significant barriers to increasing conversion efficiency, and finding alternative, sustainable, thermoelectric materials.

The market pull for harvesting waste recovery is growing, led primarily by the automotive sector. The Paper concludes that significant new market opportunities would open up if a new generation of higher efficiency and more sustainable materials could be developed; for example, in harvesting: automotive and HGV exhaust heat, solar thermal energy, high temperature industrial processes, powering sensors and remote off-grid domestic electricity generation. Since the heat already exists and is free, the cost payback time should be the key measure to evaluate these systems.

“The UK is uniquely positioned with leading players over the entire supply chain required to produce and deploy this new generation of energy system," says NanoKTN's Dr Martin Kemp. "To date, harvesting energy hasn’t had that much attention but now this is changing as people realise a huge amount of heat is being lost.

"Harvesting energy from wasted heat is both a technical and economic opportunity with the current global market of thermoelectric devices estimated to be around $300m. If the technical challenges can be overcome then the potential applications are extremely wide and the potential market would be many billions of pounds and we will fulfil the ambition to create more highly skilled jobs in science and engineering.”

The position paper, which can be downloaded free-of-charge by members of the NanoKTN, makes  four key recommendations for the UK, covering strategic direction, research funding of technologies and applications, and networking.

Currently, the major market pull for this technology is from the automotive industry, but other sectors such as space and the built environment may emerge as strong drivers. Energy scavenging will also be important in miniaturized electronic devices such as MEMS and self-powered sensor networks, and could feature as part of a combined heat and power (CHP) system, with thermoelectric generators providing significant energy for domestic and commercial buildings.

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