Solid State Power Breakthrough

Thermoelectrics Revisited — Again

The bytes were barely dry on the 14 Oct UFTO Note about thermoelectrics (“There is a tantalizing hope that someday someone will come up with a real breakthrough in direct heat-to-electricity conversion.”), and the following day, just such a possible breakthrough came to my attention in an item in EV Progress. (

The article talked about dramatic claims made at the September Global Powertrain Congress in Ann Arbor, Michigan for a “Power Chip” that would recover from 10-70 KW of the waste heat of a car’s engine as electric power. The technology is a new variant on direct thermal conversion.

Here is a portion the Power Chip’s own press release:
“Power Chips are discs comprising two electrodes separated by a gap of less than 20 nanometers, through which the hottest (most energetic) electrons tunnel to create an electrical current. Power Chips are silent, nonpolluting, solid-state devices that are scalable as arrays to meet any size power load. They can generate electricity from heat produced by any primary energy source……

They are projected to operate at 70% of the maximum theoretical [Carnot] efficiency for energy conversion, even when converting low-grade waste heat. The only other technology capable of converting such heat directly to electrical output is thermoelectric (Peltier) devices, but the efficiency of production thermoelectric systems is only 5-8%.

Power Chips™ are protected by an extensive patent portfolio covering general theory and specific techniques for quantum thermotunneling and thermal energy conversion. More details are available on the Power Chips plc Website, including the full text of issued patents and photographs of prototype Power Chips.

Power Chips™ were invented and are being developed and licensed by Power Chips plc, a majority-owned subsidiary of Borealis Exploration Limited (BOREF). Both companies are incorporated in Gibraltar. Borealis’ business is reinventing the core technologies used by basic industries, including electrical power generation, cooling and thermal management, electric motors, and steel production.”

Not mentioned was the obvious point that if you could do that, you wouldn’t bother with the IC engine in the first place. The company is in discussions with GM, who invited them to participate in the Powertrain conference.

I contacted the company, executed an NDA, and learned a great deal more about it through extensive conversations with management. Actually, the first product is going to be for cooling. (As with thermoelectrics, this process can be used either as a heat pump or a power generator.) It has attracted serious attention of major defense contractors for cooling of critical electronic components.

The parent company is Borealis, an unusual company with a colorful history dating back to an oil company founded in 1924.. There are over 100 employees scattered all over the world, and they draw on many additional institutions and people. The CoolChips subsidiary is already public (COLCF), and PowerChips and other subsidiaries are poised to go public as well. The long technology development has mostly been funded privately by private/family money of the principals, however they now recognize the need to broaden the base of support and involvement. A private offering memorandum is available from the company.

A great deal of technical and business information is available in various areas of the companies’ interlinked websites,,, and The cooling technology was presented at the recent Long Beach 21st International Conference on Thermoelectrics, and another paper is being given today at the “Thermal Management” conference in Dallas. (Both events were cited in the 14 Oct UFTO Note).

Note in particular a new version of their technical overview dated Oct-28 (this is what is being presented in Dallas). Two nanotechnology milestones were reached recently: the fabrication of large conformal pairs of electrodes, and electrodes with excellent local smoothness. The document includes new detailed electron microscope data of the surfaces.

The quantum tunneling theory is described in a paper by a group of Stanford materials researchers (I have the pdf if anyone would like to see it–it’s not easy reading unless you’re a quantum physicist–and even then it’s no walk in the park):

“Refrigeration by Combined Tunneling and Thermionic Emission in Vacuum: Use of Nanometer Scale Design”, Y. Hishinuma, T. H. Geballe, and B. Y. Moyzhes, Applied Physics Letters, Vol 78, No. 17, 23 April 2001.

According to their calculations, the basic tunneling process is ideally capable of delivering 95% of Carnot efficiency. The technical overview then goes through detailed analysis of losses, and comes up with a final figure of 70-80% of Carnot overall.

The physics theory is one thing; making a device is another. The company says it has developed reliable means to build such devices — with the unheard-of narrow gaps. Two small production lines are being debugged and ramped up currently.

First deliveries of the initial product are anticipated in a matter of months. It will be a several watt cooling chip, which will be offered for sale at a very high price. The device is said to be capable of delivering temperature differences of over 400 deg K, cooling down to 150 deg K with a hot side of 250 deg C.

If these claims bear out, even partially, it would truly be a game changer. If the devices can be made reliably and cheaply, then little would stand in the path, in every arena of refrigeration, power production and transportation, not to mention electronics. Time will tell.

Thermoelectrics Revisited

There is a tantalizing hope that someday someone will come up with a real breakthrough in direct heat-to-electricity conversion. No moving parts, “solid-state”, self-contained, scalable, and so on. Such miracles do exist, but they are costly and inefficient, and can find use only in specialized niche applications like satellite power, IC chip cooling, novelty items like picnic coolers, and most recently as comfort conditioning in automobiles.

The sought-after breakthrough would be in performance and cost, for example, to “make the internal combustion engine obsolete” and do many other marvelous things. As one example, cold climate utilities have attempted unsuccessfully to use thermoelectic generation to develop self-powered home heating systems which could continue to operate during power outages.

The fundamental underlying processes have been known for a long time, e.g., Thermoelectric (TE) (Seebeck, Peltier), Thermionic, ThermoPhotoVoltaic, etc. NASA, for one, has spent decades fine tuning these for use in space, and a hardy band of scientific, engineering and business people continue the quest. Some companies actually earn a decent living at making and selling such devices, but it is strictly a matter of small niches. Note that TE can be used reversibly to either provide cooling (heat pump) or generate electricity (heat engine).

There are some interesting stirrings of late. For a number of years, researchers at MIT and elsewhere have focused on nanostructures which create one and two dimensional worlds for electrons (known as “quantum wells”), which theoretically should yield higher efficiencies. Experimental results are slow in coming. Last October, the Research Triangle Institute published a major paper in Nature claiming dramatic improvements (in the lab) in TE performance, based on nanolayers of traditional TE materials. Most research in the field has focused on trying to find new bulk materials that have better properties, so this layering approach caught people by surprise. Prior claims to boost “ZT” (the figure of merit for TE) much above 0.7 – 1 haven’t held up, but RTI seems really to have a ZT of 2.4. Such a doubling or tripling of “ZT” could hugely expand the range of applications for both cooling and power — assuming of course that the cost is low enough.

RTI is putting on a conference Oct 28-30 in Dallas:
“Next Generation Thermal Management Materials and Systems – for Cooling and Power Conversion”
Full agenda at:

* The latest advances in thermal management materials and systems, and how recent developments can spur commercialization.
* Market trends and opportunities for new thermal management technologies in cooling and power conversion – in wide ranging applications – from micro electronics to refrigeration.
* The status of commercial applications – impact on enabling new markets and displacing current markets.

One of the speakers has recently given a paper at a recent TE conference*. (I have the papers if anyone is interested.) A clever way** of arranging an array of TE modules more than doubles the overall system efficiency for cooling. A commercial product using this technique already is in use, cooling seats of luxury cars. (

(The TE conference* was the ICT2002, held August 26-29, Long Beach, CA. This is an annual meeting of the worldwide thermoelectric R&D community. For a brief account of the conference, see the Sept 30 “ZTSpam” at Cronin Vining’s website:
Cronin is a renowned expert in TE, and a good friend and colleague of UFTO.)

Besides TE, thermionic and TPV continue to get attention. (In thermionic conversion, electrons boil off a heated surface and are collected on another electrode. In TPV, the heated surface sends out photons of a particular variety which go to a specialized PV cell. It’s PV with its own built-in custom light source, which is heat-driven.) Some of the most promising new developments use nanoscale approaches to overcome traditional obstacles to cost and performance. The “Nano-TPV” work is being done at Draper Laboratory, and involves reducing the spacing between the heated emitter and PV receiver to nanoscale dimensions. Experiments confirm a dramatic increase in the photo current. In another development, Eneco in Salt Lake City continues to make progress on its nanoscale method which they say combines thermionic and TE effects. (See UFTO Note 28 Nov 2001.)

** As explained in the papers, the configuration involves (as I describe it) a counterflow heat exchanger where a number of parallel heat pumps push heat from the cold side to the hot side. Each heat pump sees a temperature difference that is only half of the “delta-T” that the overall system provides, leading to higher overall efficiency. Whether this would be practical in a larger system using compressors is hard to say.

Short Subjects


New Features on http://www.UFTO.COM

*Scroll to the bottom of the home page, and click on
“Recommended Reading & UFTO EXTRAS”
*Note the link at the top:
“For a list of newsletters and publications regularly scanned by UFTO, click here.”
Any new ones to suggest?


See below for these items:

*Cleantech Venture Network Issues First Report
*IEEE 1547 Interconnection Standard Passes Ballot
*Army Venture Capital Fund
*New Report on Energy Storage
*New Model to Analyze Distributed Power Projects
*Sag Line Mitigator — EPRI TC proposal


Cleantech Venture Network Issues First Report (See UFTO Note, 26 Jul 2002)

The first Cleantech Investment Monitor was released last week. It reports that investments in “clean” technology companies – ranging from fuel cells to water purification systems exceeded US$500 million in the first half of 2002, more than doubling from Q1 to Q2.. It also lists company investments made during the quarter, and profiles selected companies and investors. Download (27 pages) at:

Also the website has much more to offer now, including investor membership sign-up (options include Forum, Deal Flow, and Investment Monitor). Plans for the first venture forum (Toronto, Nov 13-14) are proceeding well. Over 40 companies have applied, and 15-20 will be selected to present.


IEEE 1547 Interconnection Standard Passes Ballot

The IEEE P1547/D10 Draft Standard for Interconnecting Distributed Resources(DR) With Electric Power Systems(EPS) received 90% affirmatives in the ballot that closed September 26, 2002.

Separately, the Standards Board approved new numbers for the three new working groups. Next meeting are in San Francisco October 8-10: (see UFTO Note 09 Sep 2002)

–P1547.1 (formerly P1589) – Draft Standard for Conformance Test Procedures for Equipment Interconnecting DR with EPS
–P1547.2 (formerly P1608) – Draft Application Guide for IEEE Standard 1547 for Interconnecting DR with EPS
–P1547.3 (formerly P1614) – Draft Guide for Monitoring, Information Exchange and Control of DR Interconnected with EPS.


Army Venture Capital Fund

Clearly modeled after the CIA’s In-Q-Tel fund (, the U.S. Army issued a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) to solicit proposals for the operation and management of a not-for-profit, Venture Capital Corporation (VCC). The objective is to improve the business relationships between the entrepreneurial community of high technology innovators and the U.S. Army. This is expected to accelerate the transition of innovative technology into the Army by creating greater awareness on the Army’s part concerning commercial technology development and in the entrepreneurial community concerning the Army’s potential as a technology customer willing to accept innovative solutions to its requirements. The focus initially will be on companies and programs developing power and energy technology applicable to the requirements of the individual soldier.

The BAA was issued Aug 29, and the deadline for proposals was just extended from Sept 30 to Oct 15. UFTO will follow this story with great interest. (I am advising a local VC firm who plans to submit a proposal.)


New Report on Energy Storage

“Energy Storage: The Sixth Dimension of the Electricity Value Chain”, by Richard Baxter and Jason Makansi, of PearlStreet, Inc.

The report focuses on understanding potential business opportunities and developing long-term market strategies, describing the leading storage technologies (including pumped-hydro, compressed air energy storage, regenerative fuel cells/flow batteries, sodium/sulphur and lead acid batteries, superconducting magnetic energy storage, flywheels, thermal, and hydrogen systems), existing installations, and current market leaders. The 230-page report also includes 87 tables, market insights from leading industry thinkers, outlines of market applications including ancillary services and their impact on existing industry participants, a review of state and regional business opportunities, and forecasts of the impact on the US economy. (20% discount til 30 Nov). For details:

Contact: Richard Baxter,, 617.320.0598

In 2002, Pearl Street founded the Energy Storage Council, a non-profit organization formed to support the energy storage community in its effort to accelerate the introduction of energy storage systems and technologies into the marketplace.

[Note that the Electricity Storage Association’s next meeting starts this Thursday Oct 10 in Milwaukee.]


New Model to Analyze Distributed Generation Power Projects

Competitive Energy Insight (CEI) in San Diego is offering a new tool for the evaluation of DG projects, based on a model they developed for utility and other large scale power plants. EconExpert-DG is a financial model for the complete before and after tax financial analysis of DG and “Inside-the-Fence” cogen projects. The model can be used to evaluate and make decisions on virtually any DG Project or Technology, allowing owners, investors, developers and equipment suppliers to better understand the economic benefits and risks of self-generation. A suite of automated sensitivity functions make it easy to evaluate how changes in current project costs or future market conditions will impact their investment decision. The model also includes many automated analysis functions and on-line help features. The User’s Manual can be downloaded from CEI’s website.

CEI’s EconExpert-LP (for Large Power) is a similar tool for Central Power Station and Merchant Power Projects.

A 30 day free trial is offered to qualified parties. CEI’s website provides additional details and can be reached at:
http://www.CEIInc.NET or www.EconExpert.NET

or contact :
Steve Provol, Competitive Energy Insight, Inc.


Sag Line Mitigator — EPRI TC proposal

UFTO has been following this story for a long time, and they’ve made tremendous progress. [Summary: SLiM reacts to increasing conductor temperature by decreasing the effective length of conductor in the span. This mitigates the natural thermal expansion experienced by the conductor during high temperature operation. The impact is to decrease line sag during such operations.] For a good overview, download this pdf file:

The initial test program went very well, and now plans are underway for utility demonstrations, under an EPRI tailored collaboration project (open to members and nonmembers of EPRI). The project will evaluate the performance of SLiM on three operating transmission lines, and will provide participating utilities with first-hand information on the operational performance of this new kind of line hardware device. For a description of the proposed TC, download:
Manuchehr Shirmohamadi, 510-594-0300 x202,
or Ram Adapa, EPRI project manager, 650.855.8988,