A number of discoveries in science only happened because someone was in the right place at the right time. Thus was the case when a visiting researcher looked at new experiment setup at ETH Zurich. The visitor informed the Zurich researchers that they had created a thermoelectric material emulator, which he and his colleagues had been searching for, for years.
Thermoelectric materials have the ability to directly convert thermal energy into an electrical current, which would seem very useful considering how much heat other technologies produce. The problem is that the effect is typically very weak, so little energy is returned. With this new emulator though, which uses ultracold lithium atoms, it may be possible to created more efficient thermoelectric materials. The emulator works by chilling the lithium atoms to near absolute zero, at which point the atoms can behave like electrons in a material. By trapping the atoms with lasers, it is possible to affect their behavior and have them emulate the electrons of a thermoelectric material.
Thanks to the work of researchers in Zurich, Paris, Bonn, and Geneva, this emulator should allow us to better understand the thermoelectric effect in many different materials. If it also leads to new, more efficient materials, we could see them invade our cars, as companies are already investigating modern thermoelectric systems for recovering heat from exhaust.
Source: ETH Zurich