Everyone knows that you can save energy by insulating your home, monitoring your energy use, and turning your electric equipment off at the mains. However despite this, researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory estimate that the U.S. still wastes more than half the energy it generates. What’s worse is that this figure doesn’t even include heating and cooling loss from buildings – it accounts for energy wasted by machines, industrial processes and electronic equipment. However not all is lost – in addition to educating everyone about how to save energy, the researchers are developing a highly efficient thermal waste heat energy converter that is designed to actively cool electronic devices, photovoltaic cells, computers and large waste heat-producing systems while generating electricity.

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According to Scott Hunter, who leads the development team, the converter has masive potential for the country. “In the United States, more than 50 percent of the energy generated annually from all sources is lost as waste heat,” Hunter said, “so this actually presents us with a great opportunity to save industry money through increased process efficiencies and reduced fuel costs while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Hunter and his team believe the technology could be used to cool high-performance computer chips, alleviating an enormous problem facing manufacturers of petaflop-scale computers. These mega machines generate massive amounts of heat that must be removed, and the more efficient the process the better. Turning some of that heat into electricity is an added bonus, I think you’ll agree.

The converters are miniscule, measuring about 1 millimeter square in size – about 1,000 of them can be attached to a 1-inch square surface such as a computer chip or concentrated photovoltaic cell. The amount of electricity each device can generate is small – 1 to 10 milliwatts per device – however by constructing many arrays of these devices, large amounts of electricity can be generated to power remote sensor systems or assist in the active cooling of the heat generating device, reducing cooling demands.

+ Oak Ridge National Laboratory

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