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Device Transforms Waste Heat into Power

Credit: Unsplash

A flexible device can capture wasted heat from various sources.

Heat is a natural byproduct of many of our daily devices and utilities. Your car’s exhaust pipe produces heat, the pipes that carry hot water produce heat, and even your computer produces heat when you’re running something strenuous. That heat represents wasted potential; power escaping into the air that we can’t do anything with. Theoretically, if we could harness that waste heat, it would go a long way toward improving general energy usage.

A group of scientists at Penn State and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have developed a new kind of thermoelectric generator with a flexible surface, allowing it to be wrapped around pretty much any kind of solid object. They previously tried this with more rigid devices, but while those were promising, they couldn’t quite capture all of the waste heat from curved surfaces like pipes, and the necessity of adhesives to keep them in place reduced their viability. The flexible design allows the generator to wrap entirely around something that produces waste heat, such as a gas pipe, and capture nearly all of the waste heat. And since it’s stretchy, it can be fastened without any additional adhesive.

“Think about an industrial power plant with pipes hundreds of feet long,” Shashank Priya, associate vice president for research and professor of materials science and engineering at Penn State, explained in a study. “If you can wrap these devices around an area that large, you could generate kilowatts of energy from wasted heat that’s normally just being thrown away. You could convert discarded heat into something useful.”

“These results provide a promising pathway toward widespread utilization of thermoelectric technology into waste heat recovery application,” said Wenjie Li, assistant research professor at Penn State. “This could have a significant impact on the development of practical thermal to electrical generators.”