Regular readers will be aware that late last year GBN reported on a new energy conversion chip that its manufacturers vowed would revolutionise the clean energy industry.
The Thermoionic energy conversion chip had been developed by US-based development company Eneco and promised to capture waste heat energy - produced in industrial environments, IT equipment or cars for example - and convert up to 30 percent of it into electricity.
Dr Lew Brown, CEO and president at the company, told potential investors that it was "a genuinely disruptive technology", comparable with "the invention of the transistor, or the TV, or the first aircraft".
Such bold claims prompted quite a debate amongst readers who posted a wide range of comments questioning the chip's viability, praising its innovation, suggesting further applications and requesting details on how exactly this seemingly miracle technology works.
In response to the comments GBN sought clarification from Eneco on some of the points raised and now Brown has responded via email with answers to some of your inquiries.
Here are his unedited answers:
GBN: What is the difference between this technology and thermo-electric chips being worked on by Power Chips Plc?
Lew Brown: ENECO investigated this approach and has a patent position for this type device, Tunneling-effect energy converters, US Patent No 6,946,596.
The Abstract of this patent reads:
“Tunneling-effect converters of thermal energy to electricity with an emitter and a collector separated from each other by a distance that is comparable to atomic dimensions and where tunneling effect plays an important role in the charge movement from the emitter to the collector across the gap separating such emitter and collector. At least one of the emitter and collector structures includes a flexible structure. Tunneling-effect converters include devices that convert thermal energy to electrical energy and devices that provide refrigeration when electric power is supplied to such devices.”
This is interesting science but with major technical and cost barriers to commercialization. The most serious technical problem to solve in order to commercialize this technology is maintaining atomic dimension spacing required between electrodes over a macroscopic area without shorting out by accidental contact. It is relatively easy to demonstrate the physical principle over a tiny area, say with dimensions on the order of nanometers, but useful devices need to achieve active conversion areas with characteristic dimensions of millimeters and centimeters. We overcame this severe limitation by moving to an entirely different approach with our Thermal Chips, which use a semiconductor “gap” instead of a vacuum separator and use a semiconductor “emitter” instead of the metal electrodes.
You can see this difference by referring to our patent, Solid state energy converter, US Patent No 7,109,408. The abstract of this patent reads:
“A solid-state energy converter with a semiconductor or semiconductor-metal implementation is provided for conversion of thermal energy to electric energy, or electric energy to refrigeration. In n-type heat-to-electricity embodiments, a highly doped n* emitter region made of a metal or semiconductor injects carriers into an n-type gap region. A p-type layer is positioned between the emitter region and gap region, allowing for discontinuity of corresponding Fermi-levels and forming a potential barrier to sort electrons by energy. Additional p-type layers can optionally be formed on the collector side of the converter. One type of these layers with higher carrier concentration (p*) serves as a blocking layer at the cold side of the converter, and another layer (p**) with carrier concentration close to the gap reduces a thermoelectric back flow component. Ohmic contacts on both sides of the device close the electrical circuit through an external load to convert heat to electricity. In the case of a refrigerator, the external load is substituted by an external power supply.”
Thermal chips need NO vacuum system, their manufacturability derives from standard semiconductor industry processes and practice, and they can have arbitrary sized areas to match the application. Plainly stated, we can make these, they work and we can demonstrate that 24-7.
What does converting 30 percent of heat energy mean from a layman's perspective?
It means that of the heat energy that passes through the chip, 30% is converted to electricity that available to the electrical load.
Are there problems with the stability of the semi conductor laminate?
If the question relates to the thin films, which I suppose someone might consider laminates, the answer is that these DO NOT de-laminate.
How is the chip different from a peltier device?
Peltier devices are the thermoelectric heat pumps. We are not a thermoelectric device. We DO share the characteristic that we can use a power supply to provide electrical energy to the device and we also will work as a heat pump. Our performance will be an improvement over the peltier device due to our high efficiency, which applies equally to our Power Mode and Cooling Mode.
Why not stack the chips to use the waste heat not used by the first layer? And why not use a conductor on one side and a heat dissipation material on the other rather than a ceramic on both sides?
The conversion efficiency only depends on the High and Low Temperatures available, not the number of intermediate stops. So there is no advantage in principle. Sometimes you see this "segmented" approach with thermoelectric converters because the highest temperature may not be tolerated by the most efficient material, so a high temp material will be used at the highest temperature even though it is not inherently as efficient as another choice and another material will follow the high temp material operating at the reduced temperature presented. With Thermal chips we do not need to take this approach.
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