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Company Claims New Chip Converts Heat To Electricity 346

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the confirmed-skeptics-unite dept.
Dster76 writes to tell us that the startup, Eneco, has invented a solid state energy conversion chip which they claim will be able to convert heat directly into electricity or reach temperatures of -200 C when given an electrical current. While such a device could revolutionize many aspects of computing I'll keep my skeptic hat on for the time being.
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Company Claims New Chip Converts Heat To Electricity

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  • by erroneus (253617) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @04:29PM (#16957444) Homepage
    I don't know why the notion should be so foreign. If someone told you they created a solid state device that could convert light energy directly into electrical energy would you believe them? Yeah, probably, because you have seen these in action already. They are on just about every calculator out there now. But there was a time when they were just an idea and the topic of fiction.

    The notion of using heat is so different? Surely the technology is quite different I'm sure, but I would not be quite so quick to be skeptical.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @04:33PM (#16957534)
      Nobody doubts it can be done, see Peltier [wikipedia.org]. They're not terribly efficient (I thought they were 15% efficiency capable, but I guess not..)
      • by Qzukk (229616)
        They're not terribly efficient (I thought they were 15% efficiency capable, but I guess not..)

        Maybe the -200C chip comes with it's own 1 megawatt reactor? ;)
        • No, but it would need one ass of a heatsink.
          Assuming they doubled current efficiency (~15%)
          pumping -200C means the hot side is going to be damn hot.
          If room temp was at 0C (to make things easy)
          -200c means the hot side is at +200C +70% or: 340C

          and efficiencies rapidly roll off below -50C, also these devices usually can only pump a delta of about 30-60C
          -nB
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by russ1337 (938915)
        Almost right - its actually the Seebeck effect

        Thermoelectric effect
        From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
        (Redirected from Peltier-Seebeck effect)
        Jump to: navigation, search
        The Peltier-Seebeck effect, or thermoelectric effect, is the direct conversion of heat differentials to electric voltage and vice versa. Related effects are the Thomson effect and Joule heating. The Peltier-Seebeck and Thomson effects are reversible (in fact, the Peltier and Seebeck effects are reversals of one another); Joule hea

      • by Ungrounded Lightning (62228) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @07:22PM (#16959598) Journal
        Peltiers are just thermocouples/thermopiles made of semiconductors. They are inefficient mainly because the material they're made of is a good enough heat conductor that it conducts most of the heat they've pumped back across the temperature gradient. Absent that they should be able to reach carnot cycle efficiency. Meanwhile, if you are willing to feed 'em the extra power (or accept that they generate

        You can get cooling down to cryogenic temperatures just by building a pyramid of peltier cells (with progressively fewer couples in each layer), all interconnected electrically. This was done 'way back when they were first invented.

        This device is a more efficient vacuum-tube version, using nanostructure field-emission needles for the cathodes and built in a microscopic form-factor using integrated-circuit manufacturing techniques. It does the same thing, but using electrons in vacuum. (The heat kicks them off the emitter with a momentum high enough for them to pass through a field to a more-negative collector plate.) A vacuum is a GREAT insulator, so the efficiency is much better. (Or pump heat by applying a voltage to encourrage the electrons to jump off the needles at thermal vibration peaks, cooling them, and smack into the collectors, heating them.)

        Also: Since it is apparently built of metals and ceramics rather than semiconductors you can run it very hot - like at the focus of a solar concentrator. That can beat photovoltaics by a bunch.

        I've seen reports of this device before. I presume this one means either they need more funding or they've just solved a manufacturing problem, bringing them a step closer to commercial rollout.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          On deeper reading of this I see that they've "solved the problem" of maintaining a vacuum by "replacing the vacuum with a properly selected semiconductor material". (The reporter seems to have hashed things up so it's hard to be sure what they're talking about - as usual. B-( )

          That sounds like they're trying to build a semiconductor equivalent of the true-vacuum device I described above. Perhaps something like a field-effect transistor using bulk, undoped, semiconductor material for the "vacuum" and per
    • by rolfwind (528248) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @04:44PM (#16957730)
      People are quite right to be skeptical or they will be fleeced every time a con artist announces a promises a great sounding technology. (BTW, this isn't the first time I read about someone promising similiar solid state chips on /.)

      Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

      That said, just because someone is a skeptic doesn't mean we are impossible to convince. Just show us the tech - put up or shut up, that simple. I think that is a fair test.

      Afterall, it's good enough for skeptic James Randi with paranormal claims, it's good enough for me.
      • by Trespass (225077)
        'Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof' is itself an extraordinary claim. ;P
    • >The notion of using heat is so different?

      It seems like it might be. You extract energy from differentials. Heat has a nasty tendency to equalize, spread out, come at you from all directions. It's actually not all that easy, and tends to be very lossy, to extract energy mechanically from heat differentials. And electricity usage itself generates heat.

      Something just sounds fishy about this; like a scheme to power your car with it's own exhaust.

      But what do I know? I'd love to be proved wrong on this :
    • The problem is that converting heat energy directly into electricity violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics, not unlike perpetual motion machines. Thus anyone claiming that they can convert heat into electricity is lying, stupid, or discovering new laws of the universe. What this device does is convert heat differentials into electricity- similar to a steam generator, but without the moving parts. In order to make electricity it needs something hot on one side of it and something (relatively) cold on
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by kfg (145172)
        The problem is that converting heat energy directly into electricity violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics. . .What this device does is convert heat differentials into electricity. . .It makes electricity while heat flows through it.

        You are confusing heat with temperature. Temperature is the energy content. Heat is its flow. This device converts temperature differentials into electricity; with heat.

        KFG

        • by volpe (58112) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @05:42PM (#16958470)
          Agreed on the temperature differentials part, but I don't think I agree with the characterization of temperature as energy content and heat as its flow. Heat is the thermal energy content. It need not flow. An object that isn't at absolute zero contains "heat". Temperature is the average kinetic energy of the constituent particles. A brick at 100 degrees C contains more heat than a grain of sand at 100 degrees C, even though they are the same temperature. And that statement about heat is a statement about a static condition, with no flow involved.
          • by Thomas Miconi (85282) on Thursday November 23, 2006 @05:54AM (#16963048)
            Heat is the thermal energy content. It need not flow. An object that isn't at absolute zero contains "heat".

            In everyday language, sure. But not in scientific language.

            From the wiki article [wikipedia.org]: "In physics, heat, symbolized by Q, is defined as energy in transit."

            Heat is the amount of thermal energy that is flowing between two bodies at different temperatures. The "thermal energy content" (roughly) is temperature itself. GP was quite correct.
      • by dougmc (70836)
        The problem is that converting heat energy directly into electricity violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics
        Exactly so, and that's what I thought the moment I saw the summary.


        However, it's possible that they've just created a more efficient thermocouple/heat pump/etc. equivilent, and the person writing the story didn't realize that heat had to flow from somewhere to somewhere to create electricity.

      • by djh101010 (656795) * on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @05:12PM (#16958112) Homepage Journal
        The problem is that converting heat energy directly into electricity violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics, not unlike perpetual motion machines.

        Can you explain how heat (infrared photons, right?) is different in this regard than visible light (as in a photovoltaic cell)? I'm not busting your chops here, I just don't understand why the wavelength of the light matters in this context.
        • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

          by Moofie (22272)
          Just ask MC Hawking [insanelyrics.com].

          Entropy, how can I explain it? I'll take it frame by frame it,
          to have you all jumping, shouting saying it.
          Let's just say that it's a measure of disorder,
          in a system that is closed, like with a border.
          It's sorta, like a, well a measurement of randomness,
          proposed in 1850 by a German, but wait I digress.
          "What the fuck is entropy?", I here the people still exclaiming,
          it seems I gotta start the explaining.

          You down with entropy?
          Yeah, you know me!
          Yeah, you know me!
          Yeah, you know me!
          Who's down w
        • by hacksoncode (239847) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @06:02PM (#16958726)
          Because infrared radiation is not heat, it's infrared radiation. It can be produced by hot things, and it can make other things hot, but it is not, itself, "heat".

          Heat is the energy contained in random motion of particles. The key here is *random". If you extract energy from pure heat that's just sitting somewhere, you're reducing the entropy of the hot thing, practically by definition. In order for this to not be a violation of the Laws of Thermodynamics, you would have to create even more entropy somewhere else. The easiest way to do this would be to generate more heat than you removed, but then you're up against conservation of energy. There are other ways to create entropy, though, so it's not technically impossible.

          The reason you can grab energy out of heat moving from a hot location to a cooler location is that that net motion is not random, so you can increase the entropy of the system by randomizing the non-random element.

          Note: yes, all the above is a dramatic over-simplification.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by k1773re7f (828030)
        Thermocouples [wikipedia.org] definiately do not violate SLoT. I in fact have used thermocouples and thermopiles to power low drain electronic circuits. It does require a bit of heat. And not all heat is converted. But it can happen and *does not* violate Second Law of Thermodynamics.
      • by LWATCDR (28044) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @05:27PM (#16958272) Homepage Journal
        No this device doesn't.
        I read the link. It looks like an improved thermocouple. It uses a heat-sink and a heat source just like an RTG.
        As one person said to discredit the story "it is like powering your car with it's exhaust". A gas turbine engine does exactly that.
        This wouldn't be a perpetual motion machine since it would still require a power source. What this device does is simply recovers some of the wasted energy from the hot chip and feed it back into the battery.
        The only "questionable" part is this mystery semiconductor that conducts electrons a lot better than it conducts heat.
      • A perpetual motion machine would assume 100% energy efficiency. This technology does not claim, nor come close to claiming this.
      • The problem is that converting heat energy directly into electricity violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics, not unlike perpetual motion machines.

        Hmm... I guess thermocouples [wikipedia.org] are a figment of my imagination? After all, nobody has ever built a device powered by them [wikipedia.org].

        Thus anyone claiming that they can convert heat into electricity is lying, stupid, or discovering new laws of the universe.

        Says the guy who just pronounced something vital to many space missions of the past, present, and fu

      • T_low is probably at best above room tempertature or around 300 Kelvin. let's assume T_high is 57 degrees C or about 330 degrees kelvin. So that gives:
        Efficiency = 1-(T_low/T_high)
        = 10%

        So if they have no losses at all and it's a perfect heat engine they can recover 10% of the wasted energy as electricity. In reality I'd wager their losses will be 50% of may they can get back 5% of the heat en
        • Okay now I'm replying to my own post. what I said was right. But the application is not for computer chips but for much hotter systems. Namely the application is for burining propane at 600 degrees C and converting that to electricity. In theory the themodynamic efficiency would be max of 50%. They claim that inpractice they might achieve 20 to 30%.
          "The result is a solid state energy conversion chip that can operate at temperatures of up to 600 degrees celcius and deliver absolute efficiencies in terms
    • by tylernt (581794)
      The notion of using heat is so different?
      Indeed, thermopiles [wikipedia.org] have been around for a long time. Converting heat into electricity using a solid-state device is nothing revolutionary.
    • This isn't new... Solid-state heat pumps already exist. It's a matter of how efficient they are. Note that when they say they turn heat into electricity, this only works when there's a temperature differential. I believe this effect is called the Peltier effect. Look it up on google.
    • by MillionthMonkey (240664) * on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @04:59PM (#16957946)
      If someone told you they created a solid state device that could convert light energy directly into electrical energy would you believe them? Yeah, probably, because you have seen these in action already. They are on just about every calculator out there now. But there was a time when they were just an idea and the topic of fiction. The notion of using heat is so different? Surely the technology is quite different I'm sure, but I would not be quite so quick to be skeptical.

      The Earth receives high energy, low entropy photons from the sun. It reradiates low energy, high entropy photons back into space. These reradiated photons are not very useful in a 300 K environment, which is in thermodynamic equilibrium with them. This is similar to how you'd find it much harder to extract work from sunlight if you were on the surface of the sun, an environment in thermodynamic equilibrium with that light. (Yes I know everything would melt you nitpickers but the point remains.)

      The reason those calculators work is because they are exchanging energy with the sun's surface and they are not in thermodynamic equilibrium with it. On the earth's surface, if you try to make a solar cell to catch low infrared from objects on our own planet, you'll find that your cell radiates away the photons you are trying to capture, just by being at room temperature.
    • The problem is that you need a difference in heat. The device must have a hot side and a cool side to work. It is called a thermocouple and they are used in RTGs.
      So to have it work you would need a big radiator or even better a tub of liquid nitrogen.
      I have wondered just how much power you could get from putting thermocouples into a car radiator. Lots of heat and an airstream to cool it. Feed the power back in the a motor to boost mileage.
      Never doing the math I would guess the weight of the motor would prob
      • by ChrisMaple (607946) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @11:07PM (#16961316)
        If they are actually getting efficiencies near 40%, and the devices aren't too bulky or heavy, you don't use it to enhance an internal combustion engine, you use it to replace an internal combustion engine. Burner, converter, electric motor, and the job's done. No more catalytic converters, mufflers, mandatory pollution tests. No periodic oil changes, starter motors, or alternators.
    • by wsherman (154283) *

      The notion of using heat is so different?

      Converting heat directly to electricity would mean the second law of thermodynamics was not universally valid which would be a major discovery (right up there with relativity and quantum physics). Converting a temperature gradient (or temperature difference) into electricity (even with a solid state device) is nothing new unless you can exceed the efficiency limits of the second law. Equivalently, converting electricity into a temperature gradient is nothing new unl

    • I see your point, but this is obviously a bigger technical challenge, with much bigger implications. As much heat energy is wasted in both electronics and fuel burning vehicles, we're talking about a technology that could single handedly solve issues that we've been faced with for years, that only become bigger issues as time goes on.

      Solar energy is nice as an alternative energy source, but this technology would increase efficiency regardless the energy source.
  • Computing? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by PreacherTom (1000306) * on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @04:29PM (#16957450)
    Revolutionize computing? How about revolutionizing LIFE. If true, this would be larger than controlled fusion.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by BoberFett (127537)
      Heat to electricity? Bring on global warming!
    • A regular thermal power station has approx the same heat to energy conversion ratio.

      This device does not make "free heat", the heat still needs to come from somewhere. However, if it is small enough and cheap enough it could be used with solar thermal concentrators and overcome all the photovoltaic problems associated with solar to electric conversion.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by c-reus (852386)
      everybody get yourselves a Prescott and that will generate all the electricity you will need.
  • Brilliant! (Score:2, Funny)

    by PsyQo (1020321)
    If we all implanted such a chip in our handpalms we could watch pr0n and save the world at the same time!
  • by Josh Lindenmuth (1029922) <joshlindenmuth.gmail@com> on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @04:29PM (#16957454) Journal
    The device sounds legit (it certainly doesn't break any laws of physics), but Eneco's plan for its longterm usage is just loopy. They say they'll initially try to improve battery life by coupling it with processors to recoup energy lost as heat. Great startup plan, but then it goes downhill ... from the article:
    Brown also sees the chips ultimately replacing batteries altogether. He argues that by linking the modules to a microburner - a catalytic burner that produces between 275 and 600 degrees centigrade you can heat the chips and generate enough power to run the device.

    In theory this approach would be far cleaner as the burners that Eneco is planning to employ use Ethanol
    So in other words, Eneco plans to replace our laptop batteries with small Ethanol burning stoves that run hotter than a car engine? How would this ever fly, given people are worried about their current laptops catching fire? Also, who wants to fill up their laptop with gas every couple days? Energy coming from the grid at least in theory can be from renewable sources (wind, solar, tides, etc.). Why push Ethanol, a fuel which cannot be used on a large scale (and arguably requires more energy to produce than it provides)? The only reason I can think of is that they are trying to ride the "Ethanol investing wave" that hit markets over the past couple years (and appears to be waning).

    Hopefully investors will see through the zany longterm plan and focus on the merits of the product, it really does appear to be valuable across a wide range of industries.
    • by anonimouskiller (1030774) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @04:42PM (#16957680)
      actually ethanol from soy or sugar cane is a very clean energy source, and it doesn't require more energy to produce than it provides. Brazil has been using ethanol for more than 2 decades now, it's still cheaper then gasoline and polutes less. although the 'stoves in the lap' idea seems kinda dumb.
      • You wouldn't want several of them running in an enclosed space either.

        I really don't see this in helping make longer running computers. I think they'll just get faster. If people wanted longer running computers, they can buy notebooks based on lower voltage chips. They run slower but with some current models, you can get twelve hours of operation in a 3lb package.
  • by jandrese (485) <kensama@vt.edu> on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @04:30PM (#16957472) Homepage Journal
    Ok, so it converts latent heat into electricity, presumably working like a heat engine with the cold side fixed at absolute zero somehow? If you add energy, it gets even colder and produces...more energy? Is it just me or does this thing sound a lot like a perpetual motion machine component? Either this thing is bogus or the article is misleading as to what it actually does.
    • by lhbtubajon (469284) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @04:43PM (#16957702)
      No, you misunderstood. There are two apparent functions that are totally separate:

      1) Extract heat and use heat differential to generate electricity.

      2) Use electricity supply to cool down to -200.

      Either one or the other, but not both at the same time.
      • It sounds kind of odd to me. If they're a heat sink when producing electricity, wouldn't running current through them turn them into a heat source? Obviously I didn't RTFA, but that made my bogometer twitch. Seems like some sort of reflexive property is being violated.
      • by wsherman (154283) * on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @06:19PM (#16958938)

        Use electricity supply to cool down to -200 C.

        That's not exactly a fundamental science discovery but if it's true it's actually pretty neat.

        Oxygen condenses at -183.0 C and nitrogen condenses at -195.8 C so if these things became widely available you could make your own liquid oxygen and liquid nitrogen.

        Unfortunately, liquid hydrogen is down at -252.8 C so you wouldn't be able to condense the hydrogen gas you got from electrolysis of water to make your own liquid hydrogen and oxygen rocket engine.

    • The summary is bogus (Score:4, Informative)

      by paladinwannabe2 (889776) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @04:43PM (#16957710)
      This does not violate the second law of thermodynamics. What it does is turn a heat differential (i.e. two objects of different temperatures) into a source of electricity as heat flows between them. Its purpose is to make systems more efficient- for instance, your laptop produces a lot of waste heat, and if we could recapture some of that lost energy it would improve your laptop's battery life. It also has the reverse effect of pumping heat (like an air conditioner) when electricity is applied to it.
      • My big question is, how do you get the cold sink on a laptop? Are we putting this device between the CPU and the cooling aparatus? It seems like the thermal gradient there is a little small to be of much use.
        • That's exactly what they are proposing. Yes, the gradient is too small to be much use- but if these chips are cheap enough (say, $5), and make your laptop batteries last 5-10% longer and run slightly cooler, it will be worth putting them in. Supposedly they can be easily mass-produced, but they need to be very cheap to be worth using.
        • You need an artificial heat source in the laptop, and the cold sink is the outside environment. As mentioned in the article, the heat source would most likely be a very small burner operating at a few hundred degrees. The high temperature seems to concern a lot of people, especially those who had their sony batteries explode on them, but it is technically feasible.

          However, laptops get hot enough just from their chips operating and batteries discharging at 80% or so efficiency. Trade the battery for a the
  • Peltier? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Deflatamouse! (132424) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @04:30PM (#16957480) Homepage Journal
    The description sounds like a peltier to me. Apply some current, and the device generates a temperature differential.

    Can a temperature differential cause the device to operate in reverse?
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by mcnut (712202)
      yes, The reverse is a well studied application, though the materials used are slightly different for optimal current instead of optimal temperature difference
    • Peltier-Seebeck (Score:5, Informative)

      by tigre (178245) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @04:41PM (#16957668)
      See wikipedia [wikipedia.org] for more. Seebeck is the reverse effect.
    • He also claims it can work at tempratures way outside the safe range of peltier junctions. From the article;

      The result is a solid state energy conversion chip that can operate at temperatures of up to 600 degrees celcius and deliver absolute efficiencies in terms of how much heat energy is converted to electricity of between 20 and 30 percent.

      This is only 60 degrees below the 660 degree melting point of aluminum. Using the CPU as a heat source just doesn't jive. Cooling a CPU involves a path of low therm
  • Thermocouple (Score:5, Informative)

    by gus goose (306978) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @04:31PM (#16957482) Journal
    Solid-state device that converts heat to electricity....

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermocouple [wikipedia.org]

    Invented 1821 - Prior art?

    gus

    P.S. Yes, I know that TC's rely on a temperature differential, not just a temperature... ;-)
  • What?! (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward
    I read the article and it says you need a heat sink! I was hoping this damn think broke the laws of thermodynamics!
  • Dupe (Score:5, Informative)

    by Ancil (622971) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @04:34PM (#16957554)
    Dupe from at least 2002. Both the slashdot article [slashdot.org] and the technology [coolchips.com].
  • by davidmcn (606752) <dmcnelis&gmail,com> on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @04:35PM (#16957562) Homepage
    A few years ago (6 I believe) a company called Cool Chips LLC (which was traded on PinkSheets.com back then) claimed to have done the same thing. Unfortunately outside of the first round of announcements (which may have even been on Slashdot), nothing more was mentioned. In the comments back then it was hypothesized that an energy conglomerate or oil company would buy Cool Chips out to keep the technology from ever coming to the market. Me wonders if that might have happened, or if some of the primaries from Cool Chips are now a part of this venture.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward
      They're still there - http://www.coolchips.gi/ [coolchips.gi] - and they hold some patents on the process. They seem to perpetually be about 100 days away from shipping product - have been for years.

      Their parent company http://borealis.com/ [borealis.com] has lots of technologies that are equally world-changing, and almost equally vaporous.
      • by Bozdune (68800)
        I've been on the parent's site, and on a few of its child companies. Lots of big numbers on the books and vaporous revenue. However, their electric motor company site does have an interesting flash presentation on the technology, plus what looks like a dribble of real income, and perhaps even a real application in which the product has actually worked (one must sign an NDA to see a video of it in action). Unfortunately, I don't have the background to evaluate it.
  • by McNihil (612243) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @04:35PM (#16957570)
    Burn a fiery death of an exploding battery.

    OR

    Massive Freezer burn on my lap and thus gonads.

    This is truly astonishing.

    I do not believe a word of this.
  • by Freestyling (997523) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @04:36PM (#16957586)
    I would also point out, that even if they were to deploy large numbers of ethanol burning "batteries" the amount of ethanol, and the purity required would mean that the only way to produce the ethanol would be through hydration of ethene. This involves reacting the ethene gas with steam at a high temperature and pressure, needing large amount of energy as well as the ethene as a raw ingredient from crude oil. I really don't see how that can be carbon neutral in any way.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @04:37PM (#16957600)
    Intel announces new chip to turn electricity into heat, I believe it's called Pentium or something like that. It's apparently very very VERY very good at it.

    • Intel announces new chip to turn electricity into heat

      The facts are they are getting much worse at it. Check out the power specs on the two processor Conroe chip the Core 2 Duo. It's less than 65 watts. Now check the competition.. Intel has been getting pretty bad at turning electricity into heat.

  • When engineers do science, you just get secretive research leading to unconfirmed claims. Publish your work. Let other people confirm it. When there's a strong agreement as to what is going on the units will sell themselves.
  • Very silly idea (Score:5, Informative)

    by Ancient_Hacker (751168) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @04:43PM (#16957714)
    "Thermionic energy" sounds really wizzy, until you think about it a bit. You are trying to get electrons to boil off a hot surface and plonk themselves onto a cooler collector plate. Which means you need a hot emitter, a cool colector, and in between something that will pass electrons, but not too much heat. Basically, a losing proposition, as anything that passes electrons is almost by definition an excellent conductor of heat. Try to think of somethign that conducts electricity but insulates heat. Hard to come up with isnt it?

    There are thermionic devices already around, you're probably looking at one. Vacuum tubes and CRT's are thermionic devices. Not very powerful ones--a typical tube only boils off microamps of current at under a volt, while requiring several watts of electrical power to heat the emitter. Not very impressive.

    • Actually, that's exactly the situation for a Peltier cooler (Seebeck (sp) device if run in "reverse" to get electricity). The mismatch in electrical vs thermal conductivity is, in fact the key, if I remember. I played with them for a while, trying to get a working model for a countertop cooler (candymaking/culinary uses), but never really got the time to perfect it withing the application parameters normally encountered in residential kitchens. Fun little things, but brutally inefficient.
  • Thermocouple (Score:3, Informative)

    by steveo777 (183629) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @04:44PM (#16957718) Homepage Journal
    This is slashdot, so by the time I've typed this it may be redundant, but we've been using thermocouples for a long time to measure temperture based on the electricity they generate. Mostly they go into thermostats in homes and also are used in digital thermometers.

    I read part of TFA but it just sounds like a better thermocouple.

    Show me a production, working product. Otherwise, I'll wait for someone to come up with a way to 'catch' entropy.

  • by Orange Crush (934731) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @04:46PM (#16957746)
    Hey, if they can manufacture lots and lots of these things (and cheaply) this will make a really big splash. The Peltier Effect [wikipedia.org] is one of the Really Neat Things(tm) in thermodynamics, IMHO. I wonder how well this would work in a solar-power setting. There's one project currently in the works with big reflector dishes aimed at sterling generators. This can allow the same sort of rig, but with entirely solid state equipment.
  • Peltier (Score:2, Informative)

    by Peet42 (904274)
    It's called a Peltier device, and has been around for decades.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peltier-Seebeck_effec t [wikipedia.org]

  • thermodynamics (Score:5, Informative)

    by bcrowell (177657) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @04:51PM (#16957826) Homepage
    According to the laws of thermodynamics [lightandmatter.com], the conversion of heat to other forms of energy requires access to thermal reservoirs at two different temperatures, and there's a limit on the possible efficiency of the process, which is 1-T(low)/T(high). Their press release doesn't seem to be claiming anything that violates this, so it's not obviously voodoo science or anything. However, any such heat engine is only going to be useful when (a) you have cheap access to hot and cold reservoirs, (b) the temperature difference is fairly high, and (c) the efficiency of the heat engine is superior to the other practical heat engines that you have to choose from, or there's some other practical reason why this particular heat engine is better for your application.
  • by MECC (8478) * on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @04:52PM (#16957834)
    "Brown also sees the chips ultimately replacing batteries altogether."

    Especially if implanted in people. From birth. In vast crops...

  • by lubricated (49106) <<michalp> <at> <gmail.com>> on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @04:53PM (#16957852)
    I've had a chip in my computer that converted electricity into heat. It was called a p4.
  • I assume that this thing has to work by converting thermal energy to electrical energy, hence removing it as thermal energy from the environment. If the technology actually works well, then there should soon come a day when all the hybrid cars out there are using this for even more of a boost. Between reducing carbon emissions directly, and leaching heat out of the air, we may find ourselves introducing the next ice age!
  • Um, did these guys just invent a thermocouple [wikipedia.org] ? Those things have been around for quite some time, and are used to generate power [wikipedia.org] on satellites (using a radioactive heat source, because in space, who cares ?), and to make small, inefficient refrigerators that can fit in a car... And of course, to measure temperature pretty much everywhere.
  • Sweet. Now my new video card [amd.com] can power my house instead of just heating my office.
  • by jetpeach (704759) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @05:03PM (#16957992) Homepage
    So the technology is definitely hyped up in the article, but this is not bogus like oh so many of these types of articles on slashdot are. I'm in an electrical engineering PhD program and the ideas presented in the article are sound (i.e. there isn't any breakage of the 1st law of thermodynamics and no magic magnets involved!). The obvious question is what is this material that replaces a vaccum, this "properly selected semiconductor thermoelectric that is thick enough to support a significant temperature differential between the emitter and the collector in order to achieve efficiencies of practical interest" as this is the key to the technology. If they indeed have found a material to do this this is a very interesting technology that probably will make it into our consumer products, and possibly "soon".
  • I'm sceptical (Score:2, Insightful)

    by sinij (911942)
    If these guys are so brilliant to invent this solid state device why are they not so brilliant to see it potential uses. Let's see - portable nuclear generators since you no longer need to worry about turbines and cooling, combustion engine efficiency will skyrocket if you can recoup even portion of 60% of combustion energy wasted on heat , refrigeration and air conditioning will be trivial.

    This chip, if it works = free energy for everyone, everywhere, and they work about battery life for laptops... wtf?
  • Prior Art (Score:3, Interesting)

    by The Mighty Buzzard (878441) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @05:10PM (#16958080)
    IANAL but I'm fairly certain the patents held by Borealis Technical Limited for their Power Chips line already covers this.
    Have a look: http://www.powerchips.gi/ [powerchips.gi]
    • by syukton (256348)
      I thought that website looked familiar to this one: http://www.coolchips.gi/ [coolchips.gi]

      Switch back and forth between the two, it's kind of spooky. I realize that they're probably the same company but the logo, the layout, everything is the same. It stands to reason though that a chip that can be used for extremely efficient cooling could be used in reverse for extremely efficient power generation.
  • Not that efficient yet, but its well within the realm of possibility

    Would be great to use for direct conversion of th heat coming off *waste* nuclear fuel.

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