Quantum Physics Offers Waste-Heat Hope

University of Arizona physicists think they’ve hit upon a new way to harvest wasted energy from a wide range of heat-generators, such as car engines, power plants, factories and solar panels, and turn it into electricity. They’ve even designed the thermoelectric devices that can pull off this neat feat. Now the trick is turning those designs — which exist in theoretical form on computers — into reality.

“Our colleagues in the field tell us they are pretty confident that the devices we have designed on the computer can be built with the characteristics that we see in our simulations,” research group leader Charles Stafford, an associate professor of physics at Arizona, said in a university news release.

image via University of Arizona

What’s apparently new about the Arizona team’s work — as opposed to other waste-heat recovery efforts — is that they took advantage of the way electrons act as waves (they can also behave as particles). “We are the first to harness the wave nature of the electron and develop a concept to turn it into usable energy,” Stafford said.

So about those theoretical devices the researchers have developed: They’re not like the heat-converters we’re accustomed to. They’re not machines, like steam turbines, and they don’t use ozone-depleting gases, like refrigerators. Rather, they consist merely of “a rubber-like polymer sandwiched between two metals acting as electrodes.” That means “car or factory exhaust pipes could be coated with the material, less than 1 millionth of an inch thick, to harvest energy otherwise lost as heat and generate electricity,” according to the Arizona release.

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Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.