Down to earth space power generation via nanotechnology



Power generators used on spacecraft could be adapted for everyday use with the application of nanotechnology research being developed at Heriot-Watt.

So far thermoelectric generators have been restricted to niche applications, such as powering the Voyager space probes.
Dr Jan-Willem Bos

Dr Jan-Willem Bos, from Heriot-Watt's School of Engineering and Physical Sciences, is leading the research in partnership with the University of Glasgow, Royal Holloway University and European Thermodynamics Ltd. His team has been granted more than £780,000 by the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council to manipulate elements at the smallest, or nano, level in the belief that a whole new range of efficient energy generators can be created. 

Thermal Electric Generators (TEGs) are extremely reliable, having no moving parts, but the materials commonly used to create them include some of the rarest materials on earth. Dr Bos's work will concentrate on Heusler alloys which contain combinations of abundant metal elements such as nickel, titanium and tin. The research team hopes to manipulate the nanostructure of these alloys to increase the energy conversion efficiency enough to compare with more toxic alternatives.

One of the sectors where the new TEGs could make the biggest impact is in automobile technology, where they can be embedded in the exhaust system to generate electricity. This means that the size of the alternator can be reduced leading to more efficient fuel economy. TEGs generate electricity when there is a temperature difference between two dissimilar electrical conductors, a process known as the Seebeck effect.