Cheap material converts heat to electricity - Science Magazine
Aug 02, 2021 1 min, 39 secs

Purified polycrystalline tin selenide could form the basis for cheap devices that convert waste heat to electricity.

The record came in 2014 when Mercouri Kanatzidis, a materials scientist at Northwestern University, and his colleagues came up with a single crystal of tin selenide with a ZT of 3.1.

“For practical applications, it’s a non-starter,” Kanatzidis says.

So, his team decided to make its thermoelectrics from readily available tin and selenium powders that, once processed, make grains of polycrystalline tin selenide instead of the single crystals.

The polycrystalline grains are cheap and can be heated and compressed into ingots that are 3 to 5 centimeters long, which can be made into devices.

The polycrystalline ingots are also more robust, and Kanatzidis expected the boundaries between the individual grains to slow the passage of heat.

But when his team tested the polycrystalline materials, the thermal conductivity shot up, dropping their ZT scores as low as 1.2.

In 2016, the Northwestern team discovered the source of the problem: an ultrathin skin of tin oxide was forming around individual grains of polycrystalline tin selenide before they were pressed into ingots.

So, in their current study, Kanatzidis and his colleagues came up with a way to use heat to drive any oxygen away from the powdery precursors, leaving pristine polycrystalline tin selenide.

The result, which they report today in Nature Materials, was not only a thermal conductivity below that of single-crystal tin selenide but also a ZT of 3.1.

“This opens the door for new devices to be built from polycrystalline tin selenide pellets and their applications to be explored,” Kanatzidis says.

The polycrystalline tin selenide the team makes is spiked with sodium atoms, creating what is known as a “p-type” material that conducts positive charges.

To make working devices, researchers also need an “n-type” version to conduct negative charges.

Zhao’s team recently reported making an n-type single-crystal tin selenide by spiking it with bromine atoms.

And Kanatzidis says his team is now working on making an n-type polycrystalline version.

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