Project Targets Waste Heat

Hutt News, December 9, 2014

GNS Scientists Dr John Kennedy and Jerome Leveneur have received $78,000 to research generators that can convert waste heat into electricity. Their project was one of 101 nationwide to get funding from the Marsden Fund, which supports research which does not have immediate commercial applications.

Most forms of energy generation produce waste heat. Scientists have long tried, with only partial success, to convert this into electrical energy. Thermo-electric generators convert hear, or temperature differences, directly into electrical energy using a phenomenon called the Seebeck effect. However conversion rates are stubbornly low – generally less than 10 per cent – despite extensive scientific effort. Science is now turning to nanotechnology where conventional technology failed.

The project at Geological and Nuclear Science’s Gracefield campus will trial a wafer – thin layer of space age material embedded on to the surface of generator components to enhance thermal and electrical conductivity. A crucial ingredient is ion-beam technology where atoms are embedded into the surface of materials to forma strongly bonded layer several hundred atoms thick. This creates superior electrical and physical properties.

Kennedy will trial various combinations of bismuth, antimony, and zinc compounds to see which forms the most effective thin layer. There are many potential applications for this new technology, ranging from lawn mowers and outboard motors to large industrial plants and power stations.

As well as researchers from GNS Science, the project includes scientists from Victoria University of Wellington, Auckland University and an American research organisation that specialises in industrial applications of nanotechnology.

Kennedy said present technology meant it was not economically viable to recover lost heat energy.

At the end of three years, the scientists hope to have developed a thermoelectric power generator concept so industry can then develop it further and commercialise it. If successful, the initiative could potentially allow New Zealand industry to tap in to global markets worth billions of dollars.

The materials science team at GNS Science has been researching and developing nanocoatings and sensors since 1998, and has had a number of notable successes. It is currently exporting one of its specialist systems for use by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology organisation.

Of the 1222 proposals to the Marsden Fund, 101 (or 8.3 per cent) were successful and got a share of the $56 million funding.