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John O | June 2017

MIT researchers produce device to turn industrial waste heat into electricity

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge have developed liquid thermoelectric device with a molten compound of tin and sulfur that efficiently converts waste heat to electricity and shows potential for allowing the transformation of industrial waste heat into power in high temperature environments, which is not possible with current solid-state thermoelectric devices.


Cooper Rinzler PhD '17, graduate student Youyang Zhao, and MIT Assistant Professor
Antoine Allanore developed new formulas for predicting which molten compounds will
be semiconducting and built a high-temperature thermoelectric device to produce
electricity from industrial waste heat. (Denis Paiste/Materials Processing Center)


According to a report on the MIT website, a thermoelectric test cell was built in the lab that could operate in a liquid state at temperatures from 950-1,074°C, just about double the commercially available converters on the market. Also, the tin sulfide used in the MIT device would cost 150 times less than bismuth telluride, which is a common material in solid-state devices.


The article added, “Once melted, tin sulfide provides a consistent thermoelectric output over a wide temperature range up to 200 degrees above its melting point of 882°C.” There was no performance drop-off when the device was cycled through the high temperatures over several hours.


The researchers believe that this can help industrial waste heat producer, such as glass and steel makers, operate at hotter temperatures, which would increase productivity, and extend the life of their equipment. More important than the bottom line to the researchers are the environmental benefits provided by the conversion of waste heat to electricity.


The article explained, “Researchers compare different thermoelectric materials by determining their ‘figure of merit,’ which is a measure of each material’s effectiveness at thermoelectric conversion. For many potentially useful compounds at high temperature, the thermoelectric figure of merit has never been investigated, so the new device also provides an experimental framework to evaluate this.”


It continued, “The thermoelectric figure of merit for a device is slightly different than that of the thermoelectric material it uses because of effects from natural convection as well as interference from the device itself.”


The researchers are continuing to work on determining the effect of natural convection on either the Seebeck coefficient, electrical conductivity or thermal conductivity.


The research was recently published in ECS Journal of Solid State Science and Technology. The abstract read:


“High temperature (>900°C) industrial waste heat recovery remains a key challenge for thermoelectric materials. The unique combination of high temperature, low heat-flux, and large surface area of waste heat generation as analyzed herein shows that active materials cost is the main metric inhibiting application.


“Molten compounds with semiconducting properties are therefore proposed as a cost-effective addition to solid-state materials for these conditions. A review of prior experimental results is presented, after which we demonstrate the performance of a laboratory-scale device based on molten SnS.


“The results allow reporting, for the first time, the Figure of Merit (ZT) and the conversion efficiency of the candidate materials. In addition, the Seebeck coefficient of molten SnS is reported.


“The results confirm the opportunity offered by molten thermoelectric compounds and allow discussion of the remaining materials and engineering challenges that need to be tackled in order to envision the future deployment of thermoelectric devices based on molten semiconductors.”

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