Nanophotonic material shows thermoelectric capabilities

A new nanophotonic material that has shown record-breaking high-temperature stability could lead to more efficient electricity production and new possibilities in the control and conversion of thermal radiation.

Artist’s rendering shows the material reflecting infra-red light while letting other wavelengths pass through
Artist’s rendering shows the material reflecting infra-red light while letting other wavelengths pass through - Andrej Lenert

Developed by a University of Michigan-led team of chemical and materials science engineers, the material controls the flow of infrared radiation and is stable at temperatures of 2,000oF in air, which is said to be a nearly twofold improvement over existing approaches.

The material uses destructive interference to reflect infrared energy while letting shorter wavelengths pass through. This could potentially reduce heat waste in thermophotovoltaic cells, which convert heat into electricity but cannot use infrared energy, by reflecting infrared waves back into the system. The material could also be useful in optical photovoltaics, thermal imaging, environmental barrier coatings, sensing, camouflage from infrared surveillance devices and other applications.

"It's similar to the way butterfly wings use wave interference to get their colour. Butterfly wings are made up of colourless materials, but those materials are structured and patterned in a way that absorbs some wavelengths of white light but reflects others, producing the appearance of colour," said Andrej Lenert, U-M assistant professor of chemical engineering and co-corresponding author of the study in Nature Nanotechnology. "This material does something similar with infrared energy. The challenging part has been preventing breakdown of that colour-producing structure under high heat." 

According to U-M, the approach is a major departure from the current state of engineered thermal emitters, which typically use foams and ceramics to limit infrared emissions. These materials are stable at high temperature but offer very limited control over which wavelengths they let through. Nanophotonics could offer more tuneable control, but past efforts have not been stable at high temperatures, often melting or oxidising. In addition, many nanophotonic materials only maintain their stability in a vacuum.

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The new material works toward solving that problem, surpassing the previous record for heat resistance among air-stable photonic crystals by more than 900oF in open air. The material is tuneable, enabling researchers to adjust it to modify energy for different potential applications. The research team predicted that applying this material to existing TPVs will increase efficiency by 10 per cent and believes that much greater efficiency gains will be possible with further optimisation.

"The goal is to find materials that will maintain nice, crisp layers that reflect light in the way we want, even when things get very hot," Lenert said in a statement. "So we looked for materials with very different crystal structures, because they tend not to want to mix."

They hypothesised that a combination of rock salt and perovskite would suffice and collaborators at U-M and the University of Virginia ran supercomputer simulations to confirm the combination.

John Heron, co-corresponding author of the study and an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at U-M, and Matthew Webb, a doctoral student in materials science and engineering, deposited the material using pulsed laser deposition to achieve precise layers with smooth interfaces. To make the material more durable, they used oxides rather than conventional photonic materials; the oxides can be layered more precisely and are less likely to degrade under high heat.

"In previous work, traditional materials oxidised under high heat, losing their orderly layered structure," Heron said. "But when you start out with oxides, that degradation has essentially already taken place. That produces increased stability in the final layered structure."

After testing confirmed that the material worked as designed, Sean McSherry, first author of the study and a doctoral student in materials science and engineering at U-M, used computer modelling to identify hundreds of other combinations of materials that are also likely to work.

Commercialisation is likely to be years away, but the core discovery opens up a new line of research into other nanophotonic materials that could help future researchers develop a range of new materials for numerous applications.