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Old Technology Could Return to Generate Cheap Power

Category: Science & Technology
Posted: 10:59AM

Sometimes the march of progress can take you to the past to address new problems. A pair of researchers have recently joined Berkeley Lab's Cyclotron Road program to hopefully bring back thermionics. This technology was developed in the 1960s and '70s, and thanks to technological advances since then, might be making a return.

Thermionics is a means to convert heat to electricity by exploiting differences in two materials' work functions. The work function is a measure of how well a material holds onto its electrons. By placing two plates with different work functions next to each other and heating one of them up, electrons will evaporate from that plate and travel to the cooler one, generating an electric current. It was developed in the 1960s for use in the space-nuclear program, but the program was shut down in 1973, taking thermionics with it.

By using modern materials and microfabrication methods, the hope is to bring back thermionics and reach the 30% or better efficiency the technology can achieve. One of the technologies helping bring thermionics back is the spin-polarized low-energy electron microscope (SPLEEM), which is able to detect a material's work function and improve our understanding of exactly how thermionics work. Eventually we may see modular thermionic devices made that can scale from watts to megawatts, efficiently converting heat to electricity around the world.

Source: Berkeley Lab

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