Exploring Clean Technology

Non-toxic material can generate electricity through hot and cold

June 12, 2017

A day doesn’t go by when I don’t come across an interesting new application for rare metals and other advanced materials (okay, maybe not every day, unless I spent a bit more time reading). These past couple of weeks were no exception…here is just one example:

A University of Utah materials science and engineering team have reported that they have developed an inexpensive, efficient and bio-friendly material comprised of calcium, cobalt and terbium that can generate electricity through a thermoelectric process involving heat and cold air. Their findings were published in the March 20th issue of Scientific Reports.

Thermoelectric effect is a process where the temperature difference in a material generates an electrical voltage. When one end of the material is hot and the other end is cold, charge carriers from the hot end move through the material to the cold end, generating an electrical voltage. The material needs less than a one-degree difference in temperature to produce a detectable voltage.

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The team claims the applications for this new calcium-cobalt-terbium material are endless. It could be built into jewelry that uses body heat to power implantable medical devices, such as blood-glucose monitors or heart monitors. It could 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. It could also possibly be used in developing countries where electricity is scarce.


There are other materials that can generate power this way, such as cadmium, telluride or mercury-based materials, but those can be toxic. For years, researchers have been looking for the right kind of material that makes the process more efficient and produces more electricity - yet is still safe for general applications.

None of us should be surprized that advanced materials will help us make a cleaner and more sustainable future.

Until soon… Ian