If you can remember back to high school science class, you might recall something about the thermoelectric effect. Otherwise known as the Seebeck effect, an electrical current is created as a result of a temperature differential between two connected metals. Called thermopower, it's a field of science that has not been terribly significant on the energy front, requiring highly engineered semiconductors to produce next to zero energy.
But MIT announced last week that it just made a breakthrough discovery in the field of thermopower that will certainly create an entire branch of science and engineering and might possibly result in a new mode of energy production. By inducing the thermoelectric effect inside a carbon nanotube a strange phenomenon was discovered — electrons were found to slingshot through the nanotube at lightening speed, something totally unpredicted by thermoelectric physics.
The above video looks pretty boring but what it reveals is very exciting ... the fuel reaction, now coined a "combustion wave," accelerates heat 10,000 times faster than it normally would in the fuel itself, meaning that electrons are also firing down the tube generating a substantial electrical current. Furthermore, by coating the nanotube's interior with different minerals an alternating current could be created, providing a way to store energy without converting DC to AC (like our rechargeable batteries do now).
By weight, a thermpower device made of carbon nanotubes could provide the same energy output as a lithium-ion battery but at 1/100th the size. Imagine your latptop being powered by something the size of your fingernail. And it would not require huge quantities of relatively rare minerals like lithium.
Of course that's a long way off. This week was the first step in opening the field of research, but it holds exciting prospects in particular for organic biomedical sensors smaller than a grain of rice.
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