Dense dislocation arrays embedded in grain boundaries for high-performance bulk thermoelectrics

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Science  03 Apr 2015:
Vol. 348, Issue 6230, pp. 109-114
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa4166

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Squeezing out efficient thermoelectrics

Thermoelectric materials hold the promise of converting waste heat into electricity. The challenge is to develop high-efficiency materials that are not too expensive. Kim et al. suggest a pathway for developing inexpensive thermoelectrics. They show a dramatic improvement of efficiency in bismuth telluride samples by quickly squeezing out excess liquid during compaction. This method introduces grain boundary dislocations in a way that avoids degrading electrical conductivity, which makes a better thermoelectric material. With the potential for scale-up and application to cheaper materials, this discovery presents an attractive path forward for thermoelectrics.

Science, this issue p. 109


The widespread use of thermoelectric technology is constrained by a relatively low conversion efficiency of the bulk alloys, which is evaluated in terms of a dimensionless figure of merit (zT). The zT of bulk alloys can be improved by reducing lattice thermal conductivity through grain boundary and point-defect scattering, which target low- and high-frequency phonons. Dense dislocation arrays formed at low-energy grain boundaries by liquid-phase compaction in Bi0.5Sb1.5Te3 (bismuth antimony telluride) effectively scatter midfrequency phonons, leading to a substantially lower lattice thermal conductivity. Full-spectrum phonon scattering with minimal charge-carrier scattering dramatically improved the zT to 1.86 ± 0.15 at 320 kelvin (K). Further, a thermoelectric cooler confirmed the performance with a maximum temperature difference of 81 K, which is much higher than current commercial Peltier cooling devices.

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