Flexible Hybrid Thermoelectric Materials

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: School of Chemistry

Abstract

Wearable technologies such as smart watches, smart glasses or even smart pacemakers have caused a paradigm shift in consumer electronics with huge potential in areas such as healthcare, fashion and entertainment (e.g. augmented reality glasses). Currently these devices are still powered by batteries needing frequent replacement or recharging, a key challenge holding back wearable electronics. Thermoelectric generators (TEGs) are an attractive alternative to batteries as they can generate up to several 100 microwatts power from heat (e.g. radiated from the human body), are safe and long-lasting with zero emissions. Current TEGs however are plagued by low efficiencies, high manufacturing costs, and are fabricated onto rigid substrates which makes it difficult to integrate them into many applications that require conformal installation. There is therefore considerable interest in the fabrication of flexible TEGs that can harvest energy from body heat for wearable applications and other heat sources. This project seeks to develop a new generation of thermoelectric (TE) hybrid materials for flexible TE energy harvesting applications by combining inorganic materials with controlled 3D nanostructures and organic conducting polymers (OCPs). The materials have not been realized to date and will be optimized to yield enhanced TE power factors (PFs).

Planned Impact

Economic impacts: The global market for wearable technologies is predicted to reach $51.6 billion in 2022 and therefore has a huge economic and societal impact.
Thermoelectrics has a huge economic potential as highlighted by a recent position TSB KTN paper: "Thermal energy harvesting of heat (and cooling) represents a huge global ('£Billion') market opportunity for improved products, especially those which harvest or tap low grade heat or offer efficient solid state cooling. There is significant opportunity to develop valuable IP in thermoelectric materials and surrounding device-related technologies. " New materials are needed to address cost, efficiency, toxicity and sustainability issues." This proposal is directly aimed at fabricating a new generation of flexible TE materials from abundant and cheap materials by low cost, low temperature electrochemical routes. The potential impacts of the research we propose go well beyond thermoelectrics and will benefit many other sectors such as photovoltaics, phononics, photonics, plasmonics and topological insulators as well as electronic and optoelectronics. A range of industrial partners will ensure that any IP generated within this project will be commercially exploited with a direct route to market.
Societal impact: TE power harvesting enables direct conversion of heat into electricity that can be used in a number of areas to reduce CO2 emissions and hence reduce climate change. In particular TEGs use the waste heat normally thrown away through the exhaust of a car to generate electricity which benefits society by reducing the amount of fuel required for transport (economic benefit) whilst simultaneously reducing the CO2 emissions that produce climate change. TE power supplies for autonomous sensors can provide battery free solutions that last for decades and can be used for controlling temperatures and humidity inside buildings thereby offering a better quality of life to occupants, maintain low CO2 and pollution levels in the buildings and significantly reducing the heating and cooling costs of maintaining the building. TE technology can also harvest body heat for powering personal healthcare monitors that would enable constant health monitoring and personalised healthcare at home (societal impact) rather than hospitalisation significantly reducing NHS costs (economic impact).
People: The project will provide training for young researchers (PDRAs and PhD student) in TE technology who may potentially work in UK companies. They will be provided with a diverse range of training opportunities that include communication and presentation skills, research management, intellectual property rights, thermoelectric materials and devices as well as strong interdisplinary links between the various institutions and departments.
Knowledge: We anticipate that the project will generate major academic impact. The project partners have an excellent record of dissemination via peer reviewed and technical press publications, as well as at major international conferences such as the International Thermoelectrics Conference etc. All knowledge once protected will be disseminated to the scientific community through journals, conferences and workshops.

Publications

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