A Thermoelectric Heat Engine with Ultracold Atoms

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Science  08 Nov 2013:
Vol. 342, Issue 6159, pp. 713-715
DOI: 10.1126/science.1242308

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Cold Thermoelectrics

Thermoelectric effects—such as the creation of a voltage drop in response to a thermal gradient (known as the Seebeck effect)—can be used for a number of applications, including converting wasted heat into power. However, especially in solids that exhibit electronic interactions, this type of behavior is not well understood. Brantut et al. (p. 713, published online 24 October; see the Perspective by Heikkilä) studied the Seebeck effect in the very controllable setting of cold atomic gases. Two initially identical reservoirs of 6Li atoms were connected using a quasi–two-dimensional channel, and the particle current after heating one of the reservoirs was measured. The atoms moved from the warmer to the cooler reservoir, the extent of which fit with theoretical predictions as the disorder in the channel and its geometry were varied.


Thermoelectric effects, such as the generation of a particle current by a temperature gradient, have their origin in a reversible coupling between heat and particle flows. These effects are fundamental probes for materials and have applications to cooling and power generation. Here, we demonstrate thermoelectricity in a fermionic cold atoms channel in the ballistic and diffusive regimes, connected to two reservoirs. We show that the magnitude of the effect and the efficiency of energy conversion can be optimized by controlling the geometry or disorder strength. Our observations are in quantitative agreement with a theoretical model based on the Landauer-Büttiker formalism. Our device provides a controllable model system to explore mechanisms of energy conversion and realizes a cold atom–based heat engine.

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