Generating electricity from alcohol


Here’s a thermoelectric generator which [x2Jiggy] built. The concept uses heat from a flame, biased against cooler temperatures produced by that huge heat sink making up the top portion of the build to produce electricity via the Peltier effect.

The build is passively cooled, using a sync assembly that takes advantage of heat pipes to help increase the heat dissipation. A nearly flat heat sink makes up the mounting surface for the hot side, which faces down toward a flame driving the generator. [x2Jiggy] started the project by using a can, wick, and olive oil as the heat source. He managed to get about 2V out of the system with this method. What you see here is the second version. It swaps out the olive oil lamp for an alcohol stove. The cans with holes punched in them act as a wind screen while also providing a stable base. This rendition produces about 3V, but it doesn’t sound like there are any precise measurements of what it can do under load.


  1. treymd says:

    Isn’t it the Seebek effect? The opposite of the Peltier effect.

  2. Bob Fleming says:

    Call me when you can make alcohol out of electricity.

  3. Manuka says:

    Thermolelectric effects, although often very convenient for sensing & spot heating/cooling, are VERY inefficient! At best this setup would only deliver a few % of the fuel’s energy as usable electricity – much larger “stove pipe” systems are needed for even quite simple battery charging etc. A cheap solar PV would far out perform it in daylight, & may even deliver viable electrical energy under indoor ambient light.

  4. thebes42 says:

    My research into the Seebek effect a year or so ago led me to believe it would be an order or two of magnitude less effecient than a traditional generator. That is to say while it might be interesting to burn alternative fuels like wood, while in the boonies for a month, it makes no sense to carry fuel to run a peltier-junction style generator.

    • lwatcdr says:

      It does make me wonder just how small of a genset one could build? Maybe one of these hooked up to an generator It would be very loud but could have a good power to weight ratio.

    • Chris says:

      My company produces TEGs that are around 10-12% efficient at these kinds of temperature gradients. We normally have parasitic losses on top of this, but there shouldn’t be any in this case. Though an IC engine would be more efficient, a small gas generator is typically only 20-25% efficient. This is going to be much smaller, lightweight and have no moving parts as well as burn any fuel source for heat. Though, in the back woods a small solar cell would work just fine.

      • Greenaum says:

        Am I right in thinking a traditional 2-metal type thermocouple would be more efficient? Since Peltier devices are heaters / coolers run backwards in this situation. Any tips on the latest thermocouple-generating tech?

        Just to mention the old Soviet thing, where they had a thermocouple rigged to an oil lamp powering a radio. It deserves mentioning.

        My other thought on this was, perhaps to run the alcohol in a loop around the cold end of the peltier stack. Same way rocket engines run their LH / LOX around the engine bell to stop it melting, as the LH / LOX is on it’s way to the engine for combustion. If he did the same, and the alcohol happened to evaporate int the process, it wouldn’t matter for burning it, but it would give a greater heat difference, therefore more power. Even if it’s still a bad idea.

        Maybe our guy could start twisting some wires together, you don’t hear much of home-made thermocouple stacks.

    • chrisufo says:

      My company produces TEGs that are around 10-12% efficient at these kinds of temperature gradients. We normally have parasitic losses on top of this, but there shouldnt be any in this case. Though an IC engine would be better, a small gas generator is typically only 20-25% efficient. So definitely not orders of magnitude. This is going to be much smaller, lightweight and have no moving parts as well as burn any fuel source for heat. Though, in the back woods a small solar cell would work just fine.

    • xorpunk says:

      I’ll dumb your comment down: It uses too much fuel and produces too little power for practical uses… Unless you consider a big furnace for powering a single LED…

  5. ginsublade says:

    I remember seeing peltier devices engineered to work this way….I think they tolerated much higher temps. more efficient too..

  6. Yeah, Peltier = horribly inefficient. Makes it very easy to build though! :-)

    A nice little Sterling engine would be far more efficient. Or bypass the flames altogether and build a fuel cell instead, like this guy:

    • Thopter says:

      Could one combine the two, and solar power? Have a parabolic reflector focus light onto a photovoltaic cell which is sitting on top of a peltier which is attached to the bottom of a stirling engine. Would that work?

      • lwatcdr says:

        Yes but it would be complex, heavy, fragile, and generally a pain.

      • Greenaum says:

        I think the idea is that heat transfer is slowed down on it’s way through a peltier, or a Stirling engine, or any kind of heat engine, and that’s where the work comes from. Like the opposite of a heat sink. So the peltier would act to reduce the efficiency of the Stirling engine by more than you’d gain from using it. Same thing vice-versa, the Stirling engine would stop the peltier’s cold end cooling down enough. So overall you’d lose out. Which I believe is covered by the first law of thermodynamics.

    • xrayspex says:

      IIRC, and I may not, a stirling engine large enough to produce usable power is about the size of a city bus. Efficient but not yet practical.

      • fhunter says:

        You do not remember correctly, an integrated unit of stirling engine and generator (200W) weighted about 30kg and was 40x45x27 cm in size. For proof google: “Philips MP1002CA”

  7. Andrew says:

    I think you meant “sink” instead of “sync”

  8. Eddie says:

    Why not use the Sun as the heat source?

  9. Per Jensen says:

    The build have the same problem as one i built, the fins are horizontal, so once the heatsink is hot, it cannot dissipate the heat. You need a Heatsink with vertical fins to utilize the convection cooling…

  10. Alex Rossie says:

    What power can it provide? So far it’s alot of work for a couple of potatoes of voltage.

  11. Everett says:

    There’s a good reason most commercial electricity generation uses steam.

  12. mlr says:

    It also seems to me that a voltage measurement here is not very informative. I would want to know how much current it can pump.

    • jordan says:

      I would guess between 100 and 350mA. That’s what mine would produce when I was trying similar arrangements. A mini steam boiler or pretty much anything else would work better. Thermoelectrics just can’t cut it as a primary power source.
      They are a hell of a lot of fun to experiment with, though! This one is a nice, clean build.

  13. James says:

    There is a commmercial product, Biolite:

    No idea how well it works (or if).

  14. Asa says:

    Somewhat less green because it burns alcohol. A rocket stove like this that burns small sticks that otherwise are only good for compost would be more green. It would be interesting to see stats on how much energy you would have to get out of it you equal the amount of energy it took to make the heatsink and peltier unit. That kind of math is beyond me though, maybe Randall Munroe at would be up for it.

  15. Hyratel says:


  16. Personaly i am intrigued by this concept for heat power generation:

    • 112358 says:

      I’m fascinated by this as well but I haven’t found much else about it on the internet. I would love to see this work but without any data I can’t get my hopes up.

  17. MrX says:

    This project is useless without some efficiency measures.

  18. Per Jensen says:


  19. Bender says:

    Will it run on Olde Fortran 800?

  20. Scott says:

    Interesting idea – they used to heat up vacuum tubes with it.

  21. Victor says:

    Please also check out the element14 energy harvesting design challenge. A few techs trying to squeeze energy out of anything…. Also using Peltier elements. The 2-month-running challeng just started last week, so please check back regularly.

    Disclaimer: yes, I’m one of the contestants

  22. echodelta says:

    Around the same time 1960 our school encyclopedia had a picture of a hookah powered radio in India. It was new it was progress, getting it on in the modern world.
    Being able to push a TEG up to edge of a campfire with the cold side away from the fire, would be elegant.

  23. mb says:

    What about using something like this on an internal combustion engine’s exhaust? Granted you won’t get much power, but you’ll get some that would otherwise be lost to the environment as heat.

  24. DXN says:

    Despite the inefficiency of the Seebeck effect (confused with Peltier) it powers the Curiosity rover, and its just cool. Nice looking build!

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