GBN's recent story on Eneco, the company that claims to have developed a solid state energy conversion chip capable of turning heat into electricity, has sparked a considerable debate on these pages about the viability of the technology.
Amidst the various reader comments about the chip's reliance on the peltier and seebeck effects, the merits of using aerogel instead of ceramic insulators, and the possibility of deploying the technology in solar panels, there was also the intriguing suggestion that Eneco might yet be beaten to the punch by a similar development company called Power Chips that claims to be working on a heat conversion chip that will be far more efficient at turning heat into electricity.
Gibraltar-based Power Chips claims to have devised and patented an energy conversion chip that works using the same principles of thermionic energy conversion that underpin Eneco's chips, but are capable of delivering maximum theoretical efficiency (or carnot efficiency) of over 80 percent – considerably more than the carnot efficiency of up to 50 percent boasted by Eneco.
Chris Bourne at Power Chips said that this high efficiency rate meant that when used the company's chips would hope to achieve practical efficiencies of around 40 or even 50 percent. Again, far more than the 30 percent energy conversion rate touted by Eneco.
The process can also be reversed and the chips used as a cooling technology, just like Eneco's, but again Power Chips claims its approach is more efficient than that proposed by its rival.
Power Chips claims its higher efficiency rate is possible because rather than using a semiconductor between the two different metals, as Eneco has chosen to do, it plans to engineer a vacuum or near vacuum gap between the two metals.
Bourne said this approach delivers far higher efficiencies because the vacuum delivers greater insulation between the two metals, resulting in a far larger temperature differential and therefore a greater flow of electrons from one side to the other. "Without the gap the heat can flow back so you get less efficiency," he claimed.
The problem with this is that, as you can probably imagine, engineering a vacuum into a gap less than 10 microns wide in a manner that can be repeated on an industrial scale is as tricky as getting an apology out of a politician.
"One of our engineers described it as being like flying a jet all the way across the US keeping it exactly 10 feet from the ground the whole way," said Bourne. And as a result Power Chips is yet to demonstrate a commercially viable prototype.
However, Bourne insists the company's research effort is "close" to completion and he claims that an extra influx of investment could see it conclude its development process. He said that the firm's researchers were currently working on two fronts: trying to engineer an ever smaller vacuum gap between the two metals, and trying to exploit what is known as the Avto Effect by changing the texture of the surface of the metal electrode so that it becomes naturally more emmitive and electrons can jump across larger gaps.
He is also unperturbed by Eneco's claims that it will have products launched by the end of next year or early 2008, claiming that such certainty guarantees very little at development stage companies.
"Eneco says it has products approaching, but we've said things like that in the past [and not met the launch date]," he said. "The other issue is what level of efficiency are they going to deliver in the real world?"
Bourne added that while Power Chips is engaged in a development process that is technically more demanding than Eneco's, when it is completed its chips will be far more efficient. As a result the company claims it will be able to deliver superior versions of all the same applications that Eneco says it is working on, such as chips for harnessing waste energy in power stations, cars and IT equipment.
"I'll be disappointed if when we get something working it is delivering efficiencies of less than 50 percent," said Bourne.
Eneco: an update
Seperately, as a coda to last week's story on Eneco, GBN has collected together some of the more interesting questions raised by readers about the viability of the company's technology and forwarded them on to the firm in the hope of getting some more details. We can not guarantee responses will be forthcoming, but hopefully they will come back to us after the Thanksgiving weekend and we'll have some more information for you next week.
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