Research Article

Electrical power generation from moderate-temperature radiative thermal sources

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Science  20 Mar 2020:
Vol. 367, Issue 6484, pp. 1341-1345
DOI: 10.1126/science.aba2089

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Electricity from thermal sources

It is desirable to harvest as much energy as possible from processes that produce useful amounts of heat and convert it from waste into electrical power. Thermoelectrics and thermophotovoltaics can harness and convert heat waste but tend to operate at high temperatures. Davids et al. designed and fabricated a complementary metal-oxide semiconductor infrared photonic device that can harvest and recover energy from low-temperature thermal sources (see the Perspective by Raman). Using a new conversion mechanism, they experimentally demonstrate large thermal-to-electrical power generation in a bipolar grating-coupled tunneling device, rivaling the best thermoelectric devices. The device design could be used for energy harvesting of waste heat and the development of compact thermal batteries.

Science, this issue p. 1341; see also p. 1301


Moderate-temperature thermal sources (100° to 400°C) that radiate waste heat are often the by-product of mechanical work, chemical or nuclear reactions, or information processing. We demonstrate conversion of thermal radiation into electrical power using a bipolar grating-coupled complementary metal-oxide-silicon (CMOS) tunnel diode. A two-step photon-assisted tunneling charge pumping mechanism results in separation of charge carriers in pn-junction wells leading to a large open-circuit voltage developed across a load. Electrical power generation from a broadband blackbody thermal source has been experimentally demonstrated with converted power densities of 27 to 61 microwatts per square centimeter for thermal sources between 250° and 400°C. Scalable, efficient conversion of radiated waste heat into electrical power can be used to reduce energy consumption or to power electronics and sensors.

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