Thermoelectric devices represent a potentially transformative technology, one that could revolutionize power generation and temperature control. While they are robust, compact, noiseless, and have no moving parts, thermoelectric devices are implemented only in a few niche applications because of their low efficiency compared to conventional, compression-based heat engines. According to well-grounded theoretical considerations, thermoelectric materials might be made more efficient than their bulk counterparts via tailored nanostructuring. Given the large upside, even small improvements in thermoelectric materials might bring us to a tipping point where thermoelectric devices are routinely employed for recovering waste heat and refrigerating food.
A STROBE team led by Chris Regan (UCLA) has developed new imaging techniques for characterizing thermoelectric devices at the nanoscale, and has demonstrated these techniques on the smallest refrigerator ever constructed. Their thermoelectric refrigerator has an active volume of about 1 cubic micrometer, which is too small to be seen with the naked eye. Viewed in a microscope, it demonstrates its cooling abilities by forming a single dewdrop instantaneously when electrical power is applied. This work is continuing in collaboration with researchers at the STROBE/PEAQS partner institutions Fort Lewis College and Norfolk State University.