Scientists create crystals that generate electricity from heat

Previous thermoelectric devices used expensive and toxic elements. Scientists have now created inexpensive crystals consisting of copper, manganese, germanium and sulfur that can efficiently convert heat into electricity.

Synthetic sulfide mineral with thermoelectric properties.

In an effort to efficiently convert heat into electricity, easily accessible materials from harmless raw materials open new horizons in the development of so-called safe and inexpensive thermoelectric materials. Synthetic copper metal acquires a complex structure and microstructure through simple changes in its composition, thus laying the foundation for the desired properties, according to a study recently published in the journal. Anguandt Kimi.

The new synthetic material is made of copper, manganese, germanium and sulfur, and is produced in a fairly simple process, explains materials scientist Emmanuel Gilmou, a CNRS researcher at the CRISMAT Laboratory, Caen, France, and the study’s corresponding author. . “Powders are mechanically mixed simply by ball milling to form a pre-crystallization phase, which is then condensed by 600 degrees.[{” attribute=””>Celsius. This process can be easily scaled up,” he says.

Thermoelectric materials convert heat to electricity. This is especially useful in industrial processes where waste heat is reused as valuable electric power. The converse approach is the cooling of electronic parts, for example, in smartphones or cars. Materials used in these kinds of applications have to be not only efficient, but also inexpensive and, above all, safe for health.

However, thermoelectric devices used to date make use of expensive and toxic elements such as lead and tellurium, which offer the best conversion efficiency. To find safer alternatives, Emmanuel Guilmeau and his team have turned to derivatives of natural copper-based sulfide minerals. These mineral derivatives are mainly composed of nontoxic and abundant elements, and some of them have thermoelectric properties.

Now, the team has succeeded in producing a series of thermoelectric materials showing two crystal structures within the same material. “We were very surprised at the result. Usually, slightly changing the composition has little effect on the structure in this class of materials,” says Emmanuel Guilmeau describing their discovery.

The team found that replacing a small fraction of the manganese with copper produced complex microstructures with interconnected nanodomains, defects, and coherent interfaces, which affected the material’s transport properties for electrons and heat.

Emmanuel Guilmeau says that the novel material produced is stable up to 400 degrees Celsius (750 degrees Fahrenheit), a range well within the waste heat temperature range of most industries. He is convinced that, based on this discovery, novel cheaper, and nontoxic thermoelectric materials could be designed to replace more problematic materials.

Reference: “Engineering Transport Properties in Interconnected Enargite-Stannite Type Cu2+xMn1−xGeS4 Nanocomposites” by Dr. V. Pavan Kumar, S. Passuti, Dr. B. Zhang, Dr. S. Fujii, K. Yoshizawa, Dr. P. Boullay, Dr. S. Le Tonquesse, Dr. C. Prestipino, Prof. B. Raveau, Prof. P. Lemoine, Dr. A. Paecklar, Dr. N. Barrier, Prof. X. Zhou, Prof. M. Yoshiya, Dr. K. Suekuni, Dr. E. Guilmeau, 13 September 2022, Angewandte Chemie International Edition.
DOI: 10.1002/anie.202210600

Funding: Agence Nationale de la Recherche, Horizon 2020 Framework Programme, Japan Society for the Promotion of Science

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