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Recycling of wasted energy : thermal to electrical energy conversion


Harvesting useful electric energy from ambient thermal gradients and/or temperature fluctuations is immensely important. For many years, a number of direct and indirect thermal-to-electrical energy conversion technologies have been developed. Typically, direct energy conversion is achieved by using thermoelectric generators or thermogalvanic cells; indirect energy conversion is achieved by using Organic Rankine Cycle or Sterling Engines. On the one hand, there is a fundamental technical difficulty, thermal shorting, that limits the energy conversion efficiency of direct thermoelectric energy conversion methods. While extensive study has been conducted in this area, currently the portion of thermal energy that can be converted to electricity is still small. On the other hand, the indirect energy conversion systems tend to be complicated and expensive. Thus, existing energy harvesting technologies are less economically competitive compared with the grid power. To develop advanced energy harvesting systems, a novel concept using nanoporous materials is investigated. Nanoporous materials have been widely used as advanced absorbents. Because of their ultra-large surface areas (100-2000 m²/g), they can adsorb a large amount of ions when they are immersed in electrolyte solutions. The ion adsorption capacity is thermally dependent. If two nanoporous electrodes are placed at different temperatures, they adsorb different amounts of ions, generating a net output voltage. The thermally driven ion motion causes a transient current, which can be reactivated through temperature fluctuation or internal grounding. The two electrodes are isolated; that is, the direct heat loss between them is minimized. Our experimental data have shown encouraging results: the output voltage and the energy conversion efficiency are higher than that of conventional thermoelectric materials by orders of magnitude. Our study will not only lead to the development of high-performance thermal energy harvesting systems, but also shed light on fundamentals of electrophysics in nanoenvironment. The thermal effect on surface electrification (i.e. the capacitive effect) in nanopores is a new scientific area. Conventional interface theories have failed in explaining a number of experimental observations. We have carried out a systematic study of the effects of ions, solvent, electrode, cell configuration, etc. to understand the fundamental mechanisms and processes that govern the ion motion and charge transfer in nanopores

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