Researchers are currently developing a technology that uses nanotechnology, specifically nanocrystal-coated fibers, that can potentially harvest energy from hot pipes, engine components, factories, power ants, and even cars.
"The ugly truth is that 58% of the energy generated in the United States is wasted as heat," says Yue Wu, a Purdue University assistant professor of chemical engineering. "If we could get just 10% back that would allow us to reduce energy consumption and power plant emissions considerably."
Researchers have coated glass fibers with a new "thermoelectric" material they developed. When thermoelectric materials are heated on one side electrons flow to the cooler side, generating an electrical current.
Coated fibers also could be used to create a solid-state cooling technology that does not require compressors and chemical refrigerants. The fibers might be woven into a fabric to make cooling garments.
Such fibers could be wrapped around industrial pipes in factories and power plants, as well as on car engines and automotive exhaust systems, to recapture much of the wasted energy. The "energy harvesting" technology might dramatically reduce how much heat is lost, says Wu.
In addition to generating electricity when exposed to heat, the materials also can be operated in a reverse manner: Applying an electrical current causes it to absorb heat, representing a possible solid-state air-conditioning method. Such fibers might one day be woven into cooling garments or used in other cooling technologies.