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December 1st, 2008
Mercouri G. Kanatzidis, a professor of chemistry at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and colleagues had been trying to find more efficient materials when they observed a strange phenomenon with a common semiconductor, lead telluride.
When the team added tiny inclusions of the metals lead and antimony and turned up the heat, the material's conductivity doubled, freeing up the movement of the electrons, hence upping the efficiency of converting heat into electricity.
"Normally, when you add nano-inclusions into semi-conductors you tend to mess them up and things get worse," he said. "In this case, things got better."
The only problem is that the researchers don't really understand why. "Nobody has seen anything like this before and we're still struggling to come up with a primitive model for this," said Kanatzidis, who published the results Oct. 27 in the German chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition.
Kanatzidis believes his team can already demonstrate a doubling of typical thermoelectric efficiency, and a quadrupling may yet be achievable, with financial backing from the U.S. Office of Naval Research.
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