Australian researchers explore benefits of thermopower waves

Australian researchers are exploring how thermopower waves could be used to convert heat from the environment into electrical energy to create truly autonomous micro and nano machines.

The team at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) has created thermoelectric semiconducting structures that could be used as micro-power sources.

The researchers claim it could help to realise concepts such as ‘smartdust’, which describes micro-electromechanical systems that are networked wirelessly for sensing and receiving data — for example, in testing the pH of soil in large agricultural fields or the quality of water reserves.

In addition, electronic devices powered by thermopower waves could apply large energies to targeted cancer cells inside the human body, enabling a high level of precision.

Project lead Sumeet Walia of the Microplatforms Research Group at RMIT said the size of power sources had not kept pace with the ever-reducing size of electronics.

‘We focus on thermopower waves — which generate intense waves of electrical current by sweeping electrical carriers from one end of materials to another — because of their potential for creating small-scale power sources that can release energy at very high rates,’ she said.

Walia said the team’s work demonstrates a new class of micro-power sources and shows it is possible to obtain alternating output signals with opposite polarities, which is crucial for developing alternating signal sources.

‘This is an important milestone towards making efficient thermopower wave systems for future industrial applications,’ she added.

The work was conducted in collaboration with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and New South Wales University.