Thermoelectric devices are curious things, capable of generating electricity via the Seebeck effect from a temperature differential across themselves. The Seebeck effect does not produce a huge potential difference, but when employed properly, it can have some useful applications. [MJKZZ] decided to apply the technology to build a reading light, powered by a hot cup of coffee.
The build is based around four Peltier modules, 40mm x 40mm in size, sandwiched between a pair of copper sheets. The modules are wired in series to create a greater output voltage, and an aluminium heatsink is fitted to one side to create a higher temperature differential. The set-up produces just 230 mV from human body temperature, but over 8 volts when warmed directly with a heat gun. Boiling water in a mug produces a more restrained 2.1V output.
On its own, this voltage is a little weak to do anything useful. Thus, the electricity from the Peltier modules is fed through a joule thief, which helps step up the voltage to a more useful range to run an LED. With a mug of coffee on the copper plate, the assembly isn’t quite able to light the LED enough to allow the user to read comfortably. However, it flickers into life just a touch, demonstrating the basic concepts in action.
While it’s not the most practical build, and it’s likely to cool your coffee faster than you’d like, it’s a fun project that serves to educate about the mechanics of the Seebeck effect and using Peltier devices to generate it. Another fun application is to use them in a cloud chamber. Video after the break.
Once an exotic component, solid state heat pumps or Peltier devices are now pretty mainstream. The idea is simple: put electricity through a Peltier device and one side gets hot while the other side gets cold. [DroneBot] recently posted a video showing how these cool — really cool — devices work. You can see the video, below.
Many things in physics are reversible, and the Peltier is no exception. The device is actually a form of thermocouple, and in a thermocouple a temperature difference causes a voltage difference. This is known as the Seebeck effect as opposed to the Peltier effect in which current flowing between voltage differences causes a temperature difference. It was known for many years, but wasn’t very practical until modern semiconductor materials arrived.
On the face of it, powering most spacecraft would appear to be a straightforward engineering problem. After all, with no clouds to obscure the sun, adorning a satellite with enough solar panels to supply its electrical needs seems like a no-brainer. Finding a way to support photovoltaic (PV) arrays of the proper size and making sure they’re properly oriented to maximize the amount of power harvested can be tricky, but having essentially unlimited energy streaming out from the sun greatly simplifies the overall problem.
Unfortunately, this really only holds for spacecraft operating relatively close to the sun. The tyranny of the inverse square law can’t be escaped, and out much beyond the orbit of Mars, the size that a PV array needs to be to capture useful amounts of the sun’s energy starts to make them prohibitive. That’s where radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) begin to make sense.
RTGs use the heat of decaying radioisotopes to generate electricity with thermocouples, and have powered spacecraft on missions to deep space for decades. Plutonium-238 has long been the fuel of choice for RTGs, but in the early 1990s, the Cold War-era stockpile of fuel was being depleted faster than it could be replenished. The lack of Pu-238 severely limited the number of deep space and planetary missions that NASA was able to support. Thankfully, recent developments at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) appear to have broken the bottleneck that had limited Pu-238 production. If it pays off, the deep space energy crisis may finally be over, and science far in the dark recesses of the solar system and beyond may be back on the table.
The Seebeck effect (part of the broader thermoelectric effect) is how a difference in temperature can be directly converted into a voltage, and it is the operating principle behind things like thermocouples and Peltier junctions. Harnessing this effect in an effort to wrangle a useful electrical current out of the environment has led to some interesting ideas, like the Lily Power Pods by [Josh Starnes].
What’s interesting about this particular design is that the artistic angle crosses over with functionality. Electrically speaking, the pods have one side of the thermoelectric generator heated by the sun while the other is cooled by being submerged in water, and the temperature differential creates a measurable voltage. [Josh] designed the pods to resemble flowers, with foil petals that help direct sunlight towards the blackened “hot side” of the thermoelectric generator while water takes care of the cool side.
Are foil petals the best way to gather and direct sunlight? They are not, but the idea is to have the pods look like something other than the floating hunks of machinery that they are. Since the pods must float in water and be exposed to sunlight, they will as a result have high visibility. [Josh] seems to feel that it’s important that they not be an eyesore. After all, a less efficient generator that doesn’t overstay its welcome still generates more power than one that has figuratively been handed its hat and told to move along.