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Space industry energy technology becomes mainstream

Posted on April 11th, 2017 by in New Materials & Applications

Space Energy Technology

Developing technologies to operate under narrow constraints, like those necessary for anything designed for the space program, can lead down some innovative paths. Scientists and engineers are forced to think creatively about solving problems, and they are much more likely to draw upon newer or less well-known technologies to help.

And that’s the case for the technology we’re going to look at today. With the combination of tight constraints from the space program in the 1950s and the latest advances in material technology, this could be something that significantly changes the way we generate electricity in the near future.

Energy Storage

Releasing and converting thermal energy is today’s most widely used method of energy generation. In power stations around the world, mechanical heat engines and turbines are used to convert thermal energy to electricity, which we use to power our lives.

The technology underpinning that process has been in the mainstream for more than 100 years. While we’ve realized improvements in efficiency and scale, the fundamental approach to producing energy has remained largely consistent, despite the whole world significantly shifting around it.

A recent study, led by Prof. Roger Howe at Stanford University, has drawn upon technology first developed in the 1950s that could improve the efficiency of our power stations by almost seven times.

Energy In Space

Back in 1957 a caesium vapor thermionic energy converter (TEC), a technology that could change modern power plants and energy production significantly, was first demonstrated.

The device is made up of a hot electrode (typically at 1500K or more) and a cooler electrode. Caesium vapour between these two electrodes carries thermionically emitted electrons across a potential energy barrier, producing an electrical power output.

The idea was that these converters could be placed into the core of nuclear reactors to provide a source of electrical power in space. The high operating temperature of TECs made them practical for use in space power applications, but it also presented big challenges to implementing this type of technology at any scale in other contexts.

Although work in this area carried on for decades, scientists struggled to make TECs efficient enough to be used in industrial electricity production. Until recently, we have not been able to adequately overcome (while maintaining efficiency) the material challenges presented at the high temperatures required for this type of device.

This new study, for which Dr Hongyuan Yuan from Stanford University is lead author, has presented a prototype device which uses a graphene collector electrode, instead of a more traditional tungsten implementation. This has been shown to improve the efficiency of the device by 6.7 times at 1000°C, which begins to make TECs a viable product for more mainstream applications.

Dr. Hongyuan Yuan recently said, “TECs could not only help make power stations more efficient, and therefore have a lower environmental impact, but they could be also applied in distributed systems like solar cells. In the future, we envisage it being possible to generate 1-2 kW of electricity from water boilers, which could partially power your house.”

This looks like yet another technology that is being enabled by advances in material innovation. Where else do you see new materials being able to unlock the potential of known or existing underlying technology?

Feature image courtesy of Dr. Hongyuan Yuan. Left: schematic sketch of the thermionic energy convertor prototype with a graphene collector. Right: Photograph of the TEC prototype during operation in the Stanford lab.


All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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