From Toast to Outer Space: Thermoelectricity Decoded

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It’s a fair bet that you won’t give any thought or thanks to the power of thermoelectricity as you work your way through different activities during the day, but you would soon miss it if it wasn’t there.

We use thermoelectricity in many different ways, from toasting your bread to sending people into outer space and plenty of us benefit from the technology without even knowing it.

Here is a look at the world of thermoelectrics, including an overview of what it is and why it is so important to us. There is a brief overview of how the technology works, how it is offering current solutions, plus an insight into future developments.

The Seeback effect

You have to go as far back as 1820 to start the thermoelectrics story and although it was initially discovered by academic scientists in Western Europe, it was Thomas John Seebeck who is credited with making the breakthrough discovery that is today known as the Seeback effect.

Seeback established that thermoelectric force was created and a circuit completed when two different metals with junctions and varied temperatures induced an electrical current. The temperature difference is the key to creating an electric current in a closed circuit.

This discovery made thermoelectricity possible and even today it is known as the Seebeck effect.

Reliable and simple

Thermoelectricity offers reliability through simplicity and this has helped the industry to develop niche applications including generators for space missions.

The problem that scientists looked to solve with thermoelectric technology is that space exploration missions that go to Mars and beyond are unable to use the energy from the sun to power their craft using solar panels, as the light from the sun is too weak at that distance.

They managed to create an electrical power by converting the heat source into electricity using thermoelectric couples.

A working example of this technology in action is the Curiosity rover, which was the first to be powered by thermoelectrics.

Three kinds of devices

Closer to home, the thermocouples available through someone like RS Components are being used in a variety of different everyday uses.

There are three specific types of thermoelectric devices being used at present, which are electricity sources, coolers, and heaters.

Some familiar items that benefit from thermoelectric technology include kitchen appliances such as a toaster, refrigerators, and they might be helping to heat the seat in your car too.

Solving a wasted energy problem

Uses for thermoelectric technology are still being developed and with the growth of electric powered vehicles it seems that thermoelectric materials could provide a solution to using the electrical energy generated in the most efficient way possible,

As it stands, about 70% of the energy released from the fuel by a car engine is nothing more than wasted hear. Thermoelectric generators (TEGs) are creating excitement in the automotive industry that the technology paves a way forward to harness a lot more of the wasted heat and convert it into useable electricity.

It is not just cars where TEGs could produce some significant energy-efficient benefits and this technology that started out way back in 1820 is still capable of finding new uses as well as playing an integral role in our homes and in many industrial locations too.