Commercialization of Thermoelectric Technology


Thermoelectric technology capable of solid state electric power generation and cooling has been has been known for almost 180 years. Only in the past 50 years has this technology found its way out of the laboratory and into niche military, space, and commercial products. Most of the profitable commercial products have made their appearance in the past decade. Many of you are working hard to advance the state of the art in thermoelectric materials, and I am sure that you do not want to wait another 180 years, 50 years, or even another decade to commercialize your results. There are many potential ways to commercialize this technology, but the area that I think represents the biggest market is the automotive industry. There are over 17 million automobiles sold in the US each year and over 60 million worldwide. With the possible exception of the electric power industry, I know of no other market segment that is even close to the potential of the automotive industry for using a high volume of thermoelectric materials. Every vehicle produced has an electrical system supplied by a one to two kilowatt generator with increasing power demand as electrical features are added. A high percentage of vehicles have air conditioning systems with 3 to 5 kilowatts of cooling. Sufficiently advanced thermoelectric materials can be the heart of systems that supplement or replace the mechanical or electro-mechanical devices performing these functions today. This paper addresses the boundary conditions for the function, quantity, and value needed to commercialize thermoelectric technology. Timing to introduce subsystems with this technology is also addressed. Thermoelectric technology has to compete with the existing technologies and other emerging technologies to be successfully commercialized. While it seems out of reach today, there is even the potential that sufficiently advanced thermoelectric materials and device construction could one day replace the internal combustion engine and even rival fuel cells in energy conversion efficiency.

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Correspondence to R. Stabler Francis.

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Francis, R.S. Commercialization of Thermoelectric Technology. MRS Online Proceedings Library 886, 104 (2005).

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