Low-tech semiconductors are about to disrupt the energy industry, and no, we don’t mean solar cells — Tech News and Analysis


Cheap semiconductors — that are lower tech than solar cells — could be the key to converting heat into useable energy at power plants, in appliances and even in vehicles.

Over the next five years, as the energy industry searches for new viable pillars of emerging clean technologies to fuel ever-growing demand for energy and efficiency, a tidal wave of thermoelectric power generation products is poised to flood the market. Thermoelectrics are semiconductor materials that turn heat directly into electricity, much like solar panels use light to do the same. The materials can be used in anything from appliances, to engines, to power plants, and really anywhere that waste heat is produced.

Breakthroughs in nanotechnology have brought the commercial viability of thermoelectric waste-heat recovery to a tipping point. The future of thermoelectrics is no longer a ”might be” or “could be”, but a “will be.”

It is because of my certainty in the field of thermoelectrics — and its enormous commercial potential — that I founded my company, Alphabet Energy, five years ago. As cleantech has gone through a correction in recent years, so too has the thermoelectric community. So what makes this technology so compelling right now?

Thermoelectrics offer a unique combination of extreme reliability and simplicity, unmatched by other thermal power generators. This makes them the ideal technology to turn waste heat into power in places like remote power plants, factories, vehicles, or anywhere waste heat is generated.

The modern era of thermoelectrics began in the late ’90s when nanotechnology promised to yield major improvements. It was during this same time period that the Federal government made significant investments in thermoelectric power generation via DARPA and the Department of Energy.

The resulting work, mostly around building automotive generators, did a few things: it demonstrated to the field that thermoelectric material efficiency (or “zT”) is only one small piece of the puzzle. And in the broader sense, it showed that significant development of everything from the electrical and mechanical contacts to the material to the heat exchangers and balance-of-plant is also important.

The other effect that significant government investment had is that it tied up almost everyone in the field. For more than a decade, nearly every researcher working on thermoelectrics had their hand in a government-funded pot for automotive generators. A lot of good work was done, but ultimately passenger vehicles proved to be an application that would take too long (taking a minimum of 5-10 years to get a new technology into a car) to see commercial results. Morale in the field of thermoelectrics suffered, even as learning multiplied.

Concurrently, solar took off and energy efficiency proved to be a good business. Industrial customers have proven their willingness to spend money to reduce energy costs, while the dramatic rise in the photovoltaic industry showed two important things: there are scalable business models for distributed generation and it is possible to cost-effectively produce low-tech semiconductors. Thermoelectrics are even lower-tech than photovoltaics.

These market and technical conditions position the field of thermoelectrics at an important juncture. Between huge technical advances over the past 10 years due to nanotechnology and government funding and the learning that cleantech has experienced, thermoelectrics are about to disrupt the energy industry.

There now exists clear value in simple, reliable thermoelectric waste-heat recovery products for industrial and automotive companies alike, as well as a path to making thermoelectric generators that are inexpensive and widely applicable. At Alphabet Energy we’ve made major strides in these areas, and believe that the field as a whole is about to see several commercial home runs in as many multi-billion dollar markets.

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