The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

Electricity From Heat Could Power Electronics

U.S. military-funded project develops thermoelectric generator

2 min read
Electricity From Heat Could Power Electronics
Photo: Angel Washington, 4th BCT PAO, 1st Cav. Div./U.S.Army

A thermoelectric generator could make army tanks and family minivans more fuel efficient by turning waste heat into electricity, and open up a variety of other uses, says the company that’s developing the generators.

GMZ Energy of Waltham, Mass., says it has demonstrated a module that produces 200 watts of electricity from the heat coming off a diesel-powered tank, a step toward building systems that will produce a kilowatt from such tanks. With the effort involved in transporting fuel to a battle site, diesel can cost the U.S. military upwards of $10.50 per liter ($40 per gallon). So using that fuel more efficiently will save the Department of Defense significant amounts of money, says Scott Rackey, GMZ’s vice president of business development.

The device is based on half-Heusler compounds, mixtures of elements that together have desirable thermoelectric properties.  GMZ built its device out of a compound containing hafnium, zirconium, cobalt, nickel, antimony, and tin, although Rackey says the company will eventually replace the hafnium with a less expensive element. They use a long-established technique called ball milling to grind the compound into nanometer-scale bits, then use heat and pressure to form the resulting powder into small disks. The materials used and the nanostructures created by the milling and pressing combine to improve a measure of thermoelectric conversion, called ZT, by 30 percent. That improved conversion rate is enough to make the device capable of converting about 7 percent of waste heat into electricity.

That might not sound significant, but with a new source of electrical power, a vehicle can use its alternator—normally the generator of electricity—less or not at all. That allows the engine to run more efficiently and use less fuel.

Rackey imagines other potential applications such as drilling equipment that uses the temperature difference between the crust it’s drilling into and surrounding seawater to generate electricity. A boiler with a thermoelectric device installed could produce power to run its own burner and circulator pumps, so it keeps working if power to the home goes out. There could also be a USB port to allow homeowners to recharge their electronics from the boiler.

“Because there’s waste heat in so many places, there’s lots of places we can put this functionality,” Rackey says.

Module Photo: GMZ Energy


The Conversation (0)
This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

Keep Reading ↓Show less