Thermoelectric material made from non-toxic chemical elements

Thermoelectric materials generate electricity in a difference in temperature. In a world where there is always a power shortage, using heat that normally would go to waste sounds like a good idea, which is why we have seen examples from coffee mugs that could charge your phone to thermoelectric paint. However, common thermoelectric materials are made with toxic chemicals. Now, researchers at the University of Utah have developed a thermoelectric material from calcium, cobalt and terbium, which are non-toxic materials.

Thermoelectric effect is a process where the temperature difference in a material generates an electrical voltage. Less than one degree difference in temperature is enough to produce a detectable voltage.

Common thermoelectric materials are made from toxic chemical elements, such as cadmium, telluride, or mercury. For the new material (the black blocks between the two plates pictured), the researchers used non-toxic ingredients, namely calcium, cobalt and terbium. Not only are the chemicals used by the team safe for humans and bio-friendly, they are also inexpensive.

The applications for this new material are endless, according to the researchers. It could be built into jewellery that uses body heat to power implantable medical devices such as blood-glucose monitors or heart monitors. It could also be used to charge mobile devices through cooking pans, or in cars where it draws from the heat of the engine. Airplanes could generate extra power by using heat from within the cabin versus the cold air outside. Power plants also could use the material to produce more electricity from the escaped heat the plant generates.

In addition, it could be used in developing countries where electricity is scarce and the only source of energy is the fire in stoves.

The material is currently patent pending in the U.S..

Diagram: Ashutosh Tiwari
Photo new material: Dan Hixson / University of Utah College of Engineering