Thermopower Waves from Nanotubes

Heat produced by burning fuel in a carbon nanotube “wick” can force a wave of electrons down the tube, producing electric current. An engineering lab at MIT has made new progress on this technique.

Thermopower Waves (from “Daily Planet”)


A clip from an episode of “Daily Planet” on Discovery Channel Canada featuring the research on thermopower waves in the Strano Research Group at MIT. Electrical generators using these waves can produce a great deal of power for their size, up to 14 times more than a commercial lithium-ion battery.

Progress on a Powerful New Way to Generate Electricity – []

A powerful new way to generate electricity could eventually make electric cars and electronic gadgets run longer.

About four years ago, researchers in Michael Strano’s chemical engineering lab at MIT coated a short piece of yarn made of carbon nanotubes with TNT and lit one end with a laser. It sparkled and burned like a fuse, demonstrating a new way to generate electricity that produces phenomenal amounts of power.

At the time, no one understood how it worked, and it was so inefficient that it was little more than a “laboratory curiosity,” Strano says.

Now, Strano has figured out the underlying physics, which has helped his team improve efficiencies dramatically—by 10,000 times—and charted a path for continued rapid improvements. One day, generators that use the phenomenon could make portable electronics last longer, and make electric cars as convenient as conventional ones, both extending their range and allowing fast refueling in minutes.

Carbon nanotubes offer new way to produce electricity – []

Scientists have discovered that a moving pulse of heat traveling along the miniscule wires known as carbon nanotubes can cause powerful waves of energy. These “thermopower waves” can drive electrons along like a collection of flotsam propelled along the surface of ocean waves, creating an electrical current. The previously unknown phenomenon opens up a new area of energy research and could lead to a new way of producing electricity.

The team of scientists at MIT coated the electrically and thermally conduction carbon nanotubes with a layer of reactive fuel that can produce heat by decomposing. This fuel was then ignited at one end of the nanotube using either a laser beam or a high-voltage spark, and the result was a fast-moving thermal wave traveling along the length of the carbon nanotube like a flame speeding along the length of a lit fuse. Heat from the fuel goes into the nanotube, where it travels thousands of times faster than in the fuel itself.

As the heat feeds back to the fuel coating, a thermal wave is created that is guided along the nanotube. With a temperature of 3,000 kelvins, this ring of heat speeds along the tube 10,000 times faster than the normal spread of this chemical reaction.

It is the heating produced by that combustion that also pushes electrons along the tube, creating a substantial electrical current.

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