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Scalable Routes to Efficient Thermoelectric Materials


Thermoelectrics are solid-state materials with the ability to directly convert heat to electricity and visa versa. Despite their advantages in power density and reliability, state-of-the-art bulk alloy materials have not been efficient enough or inexpensive enough to be deployed widely. Newer nanostructured materials show significantly improved efficiencies and could overcome these long-standing problems. This dissertation studies the conditions that govern efficiency improvements in nanostructured materials with particular attention paid to lattice thermal conductivity reductions as well as methods to make such materials inexpensively using solution processing.

Measurements of a new p-type material system, In1-xGaxSb doped with epitaxially embedded metallic ErSb nanocrystals show that lattice thermal conductivity is reduced significantly below the alloy limit with as little as 1% nanocrystal loading by volume. Theoretical modeling based on the Boltzmann transport equation (BTE) is able to explain the reductions on the basis of an increased scattering cross section for long wavelength phonons which are scattered much less effectively by phonon-phonon and alloy impurity interactions. The optimal conditions for nanoparticle size, concentration, alloy composition are explored and the existence of an optimal nanocrystal size which depends on the alloy composition and temperature is predicted.

A variety of colloidal nanocrystals are explored as inexpensive building blocks for nanostructured thermoelectric materials with tunable electronic and thermal properties. First, the electronic properties of superlattices of PbSe nanocrystals are studied in the limit of strong quantum confinement (d<10nm). PbSe quantum dot superlattices show size-dependent Seebeck coefficient which exceed that of the bulk material at equivalent carrier concentrations. Reversible control of the carrier concentration is shown by surface exposure of the superlattices to oxidizing and reducing agents and in-situ monitoring of the thermopower.

Next, phonon transport in ultra-fine grained nanocomposites with tunable grain size are studied using colloidal nanocrystals. Particles of CdSe are coated with a hydrazine-based metal chalcogenide ligand which serves as a functional "glue." Composites with grain size between 3nm-6nm display ultra-low thermal conductivity approaching the theoretical limit for a crystalline solid, nearly 30 times lower than the bulk compound. Modeling shows that boundary scattering in the framework of BTE cannot adequately explain the measured properties and alternative mechanisms are discussed.

Finally, a solution processable route to Bi2Te3-xSex thermoelectrics is developed by reacting Bi2S3 in hydrazine to form a universal precursor. The precursor is spin-coated in the presence of excess Se and Te and annealed to form a thermoelectrics material with a maximum ZT~0.4 at room temperature, which is the highest for any spin-coated material currently reported.

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