Passively Generating Power Day And Night Takes The Right Parts

A thermoelectric generator (TEG) can turn a temperature difference into electricity, and while temperature differentials abound in our environment, it’s been difficult to harness them into practical and stable sources of power. But researchers in China have succeeded in creating a TEG that can passively and continuously generate power, even across shifting environmental conditions. It’s not a lot of power, but that it’s continuous is significant, and it could be enough for remote sensors or similar devices.

Historically, passive TEGs have used ambient air as the “hot” side and some form of high-emissivity heat sink — usually involving exotic materials and processes — as the “cold” side. These devices work, but fail to reliably produce uninterrupted voltage because shifting environmental conditions have too great of an effect on how well the radiative cooling emitter (RCE) can function.

The black disk (UBSA) heats the bottom while the grey square (RCE) radiates heat away, ensuring a workable temperature differential across a variety of conditions.

Here is what has changed: since a TEG works on temperature difference between the hot and cold sides, researchers improved performance by attaching an ultra-broadband solar absorber (UBSA) to the hot side, and an RCE to the cold side. The UBSA is very good at absorbing radiation (like sunlight) and turning it into heat, and the RCE is very good at radiating heat away. Together, this ensures enough of temperature difference for the TEG to function in bright sunlight, cloudy sunlight, clear nighttime, and everything in between.

As mentioned, it’s not a lot of power (we’re talking millivolts) but the ability to passively and constantly produce across shifting environmental conditions is something new. And as a bonus, the researchers even found a novel way to create both UBSA and RCE using non-exotic materials and processes. The research paper with additional details is available here.

The ability to deliver uninterrupted power — even in tiny amounts — is a compelling goal. A few years ago we encountered a (much larger) device from a team at MIT that also aimed to turn environmental temperature fluctuations into a trickle of constant power. Their “Thermal Resonator” worked by storing heat in phase-change materials that would slowly move heat across a TEG, effectively generating continuously by stretching temperature changes out over time.

Big Power, Little Power, Tiny Power, Zap!

Our Hackaday Prize Challenges are evaluated by a panel of judges who examine every entry to see how they fare against judging criteria. With prize money at stake, it makes sense we want to make sure it is done right. But we also have our Hackaday Prize achievements, with less at stake leading to a more free-wheeling way to recognize projects that catch our eye. Most of the achievements center around fun topics that aren’t related to any particular challenge, but it’s a little different for the Infinite Improbability achievement. This achievement was unlocked by any project that impressed with their quest for power, leading to some overlap with the just-concluded Power Harvesting Challenge. In fact, when the twenty Power Harvesting winners were announced, we saw that fourteen of them had already unlocked the achievement.

Each of the Power Harvesting winners will get their own spotlight story. And since many of them have unlocked this achievement, now is the perfect time to take a quick tour through a few of the other entries that have also unlocked the Infinite Improbability achievement.

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Thermoelectric Fan Harvests Wood Stove Heat Junkyard Style

Anyone who heats with a wood stove knows that the experience is completely different from typical central heating. It’s not for everyone, though, and it’s certainly not without its trade-offs. One of the chief complaints is getting heat away from the stove and into other areas of the house, and many owners turn on an electric fan to circulate the heated air.

That’s hardly in the green nature of wood heating, though, and fans can be noisy. So something like this heat-powered stove-top fan can come in handy. Such fans, which use Peltier devices to power a small electric motor, are readily available commercially. [bongodrummer] thought that sounded like no fun, though, and created his own mostly from junk. The Peltier module was salvaged from an old travel fridge and mounted to a heat sink from a computer to harvest heat from the stove. The other side of the Peltier needs to have a heat sink to keep it cooler than the hot side, and [bongodrummer] chose an unconventional bit of salvage for the job — the cylinder of a chainsaw engine. The spark plug hole sprouts the mount for the fan motor, and the cooling fins help keep the Peltier cool. And to prevent overheating of the device, he added a surprise — a car cooling system thermostat to physically lift the device off the stove when it gets too hot. Genius!

The video below shows the build, which was not trivial. But we think the end results are worth it, and it reminds us a little of the woodstove generator we featured a while back.

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Thermoelectric Generator Shines Where The Sun Doesn’t

For off-grid renewable electricity, solar seems to make sense. Just throw some PV panels on the roof and you’re all set to stick it to the man, right? But the dirty little secret of the king of clean energy is that very few places on the planet get the sort of sunshine needed to make residential PV panels worth their installation cost in the short term, and the long-term value proposition isn’t very good either.

The drearier places on the planet might benefit from this high-power thermoelectric generator (TEG) developed and tested by [TegwynTwmffat] for use on a wood burning stove. The TEG modules [Tegwyn] used are commercially available and rated at 14.4 volts and 20 watts each. He wisely started his experiments with a single module; the video below shows the development of that prototype. The bulk of the work with TEGs is keeping the cold side of the module at a low enough temperature for decent performance, since the modules work better the higher the difference in temperature is across the module. A finned heatsink and a fan wouldn’t cut it for this application, so a water-cooled block was built to pump away the heat. A successful test led to scaling the generator up to 10 modules with a very impressive heatsink, which produced about 120 watts. Pretty good, but we wonder if some easy gains in performance would have come from using heat sink compound on the module surfaces.

Using thermal differences to generate electricity is nothing new, but a twist on the technique is getting attention lately as a potential clean energy source. And who knows? Maybe [TegwynTwmffat]’s or one of the other Hackaday Prize 2018 entries will break new ground and change the world. What’s your big idea?

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