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.
We will all be used to the thermoelectric effect in our electronic devices. The property of a junction of dissimilar conductors to either generate electricity from a difference in temperature (the Seebeck effect), or heating or cooling the junction (the Peltier effect). Every time we use a thermocouple or one of those mini beer fridges, we’re taking advantage of it.
Practical commercial thermoelectric arrays take the form of a grid of semiconductor junctions wired in series, with a cold side and a hot side. For a Peltier array the cold side drops in temperature and the hot side rises in response to applied electric current, while for a Seebeck array a current is generated in response to temperature difference between the two sides. They have several disadvantages though; they are not cheap, they are of a limited size, they can only be attached to flat surfaces, and they are only as good as their thermal bond can be made.
While dry ice can be obtained with simpler methods, for example by venting gaseous CO2 from fire extinguishers and collecting the forming CO2 flakes, [pabr’s] method is indeed attractive as a more compact solid-state solution. The setup employs a four stage Peltier element, which uses four Peltier stages to achieve a high temperature differential. With sufficient cooling on the high-temperature side of the element, it should be well capable of achieving temperatures below -78.5 °C, the sublimation temperature of CO2. So far, [pabr] has built three different setups to expose small amounts of CO2 to the cold of the Peltier element, hoping to observe the formation of little dry ice flakes.
[Sean] is by no means an electrical engineer, but when he discovered the magic of Peltier plates he knew he had to make a project with them. This is his Energy Harvesting Peltier Ring.
The effect he is harnessing is called the SeeBeck Effect — the process of generating electricity through temperature differentials. He has shown how peltier plates work to many people, and, as you can guess, most people think they are amazing (free energy wow!). Unfortunately, most peltier plates are rather large and bulky, so [Sean] decided he wanted to try to design something small enough that could fit on a ring. Just a proof of concept, to light a tiny SMD LED.
The tiny Peltier plate he found generates about 0.3V with a temperature differential of about 20C — not bad, but it won’t light up any standard LEDs at that voltage! He started looking into voltage steppers and discovered Linear Technology’s 3108 Ultralow Voltage Step-up converter and Power Manager — a surface mount chip capable of scaling 0.3V to 5V. The only problem? [Sean’s] never done surface mount soldering.
His first circuit was built on a prototyping board, and after it worked successfully, he designed a PCB using Fritzing. Another success! Prototyping complete, it was now time to try to downsize the PCB even more to fit on a ring. Realizing there was no way he was going to fit it on a single ring, he decided to make a double ring out of CNC machined aluminum. He made use of his school’s CNC shop and the ring came out great. It works too! The room has to be fairly cool for the LED to light, but [Sean] definitely proved his concept. Now to make it even smaller!
[Steven] manages to power an LED for 15 minutes using hot and cold water as a battery. He does this using the thermoelectric effect also known as the Seebeck effect, Peltier effect or Thomson effect. This isn’t particularly new; in fact there are commercial products that you can use to charge a cell phone using a small campfire or internal burner that works on the same principle.
What is interesting about [Steven’s] device is that he uses a salvaged Peltier device not meant for generating electricity, coupled with a home built joule thief circuit. In the video he describes how the joule thief functions and powers the LED using the small voltage generated by the Peltier device. The energy for the thermoelectric effect is conducted from a hot water bath through aluminum plates, through the positive and negative sides of the Peltier device, through more aluminum plates and finally into a cold water bath. As the heat energy transfers through the Peltier device a small electric current is generated and flows in two small wires coming out the side of the device. The energy generated by the Peltier device is stored in the joule thief and periodically dumped at a voltage high enough to forward bias the LED “on” for a brief moment. Technically the LED is flashing but at a frequency too high for our eyes to see. As the hot water bath cools, the LED goes from very bright, to dim, to off in about 15 minutes.
Not a very practical power supply but still quite the parlor trick. He wraps up the tutorial specifying that a TEG thermoelectric generator would be a much better choice for generating power and can handle much higher temperatures. You can watch the video after the break.