Novel thermoelectric materials have already resulted in a new consumer product: a simple, efficient way of cooling car seats in hot climates. The devices, similar to the more-familiar car seat heaters, provide comfort directly to the individual rather than cooling the entire car, saving on air conditioning and energy costs.
The research is based on the principle of thermoelectric cooling and heating, which was first discovered in the early 19th century and was advanced into some practical applications in the 1960s by MIT professor (and former president) Paul Gray, among others.
Thermoelectric devices are based on the fact that when certain materials are heated, they generate a significant electrical voltage. Conversely, when a voltage is applied to them, they become hotter on one side, and colder on the other. The process works with a variety of materials, and especially well with semiconductors — the materials from which computer chips are made. But it always had one big drawback: it is very inefficient.
The fundamental problem in creating efficient thermoelectric materials is that they need to be very good at conducting electricity, but not heat. That way, one end of the apparatus can get hot while the other remains cold, instead of the material quickly equalizing the temperature. In most materials, electrical and thermal conductivity go hand in hand. So researchers had to find ways of modifying materials to separate the two properties.
The key to making it more practical, Dresselhaus explains, was in creating engineered semiconductor materials in which tiny patterns have been created to alter the materials’ behavior. This might include embedding nanoscale particles or wires in a matrix of another material. These nanoscale structures — just a few billionths of a meter across — interfere with the flow of heat, while allowing electricity to flow freely. "Making a nanostructure allows you to independently control these qualities," Dresselhaus says.
She and her MIT collaborators started working on these developments in the 1990s, and soon drew interest from the US Navy because of the potential for making quieter submarines (power generation and air conditioning are some of the noisiest functions on existing subs). "From that research, we came up with a lot of new materials that nobody had looked into," Dresselhaus says.