The United States Department of Energy (DOE) announced earlier this month that they have developed an alloy that achieved a 25% improvement of a substance’s ability to convert heat to electric energy. By adding rare earth elements to thermoelectric material, scientists have found a way to drastically improve the efficiency of certain metals. The research and implementation of the finding came from the Ames Laboratory in Iowa, where scientists are claiming their results have not been found anywhere else on Earth.
Publishing their findings in the Advanced Functional Materials journal, the team found that by adding less than one percent of cerium or ytterbium to tellurium, antimony, germanium, or silver those elements improved thermoelectric properties by a staggering amount. The utilization of this knowledge is yet to be seen, however, it gives researchers in the private and public sector a reason to revisit ideas previously considered unsustainable.
Thermoelectric materials like silver have a very low efficiency when it comes to converting heat into electricity, and even after NASA found ways to harness that potential for long-term space probes, their applications for mass production appeared to be small. But if scientists at the DOE and elsewhere can continue to improve the ability advancements in several practical areas, like using the heat from an exhaust to partially power a car, can be improved.
One potential challenge here is that all of the rare earth substances are becoming increasingly precious commodities as they are used in advanced products from superconductors to nuclear weapons. The race to mine for such elements has caused some speculation about the future of technology, both green and otherwise.