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Geek-Up[5.20.2011]: Electricity from Waste Heat, Fuel from Sunlight

May 20, 2011 - 5:53pm

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Thanks to scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), the billions of dollars lost each year as waste heat from industrial processes could be converted into electricity. An ORNL team, led by Scott Hunter, has developed a high-efficiency thermal waste heat energy converter that actively cools electronic devices, photovoltaic cells, computers and other large industrial systems while generating electricity.

Hunter noted, “In the United States, more than 50 percent of the energy generated annually from all sources is lost as waste heat so this actually presents us with a great opportunity to save industry money through increased process efficiencies and reduced fuel costs while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

The technology uses cantilever structures that are about 1 millimeter square in size – about 1,000 of these converters can be attached to a 1-inch square surface, such as computer chip or PV cell. Although the amount of electricity each device can generate is small – 1 to 10 milliwatts per device – many arrays can be used to generate sizable amounts that can power remote sensor systems or assist in active cooling.

Initially, Hunter envisions the technology being used for cooling high-performance computer chips, such as those in petaflop-scale computers. Check out more on ORNL’s waste heat to electricity technology here.


Hated by boaters and pool owners alike, algae may someday help provide us with the raw machinery to power our appliances. At Argonne National Laboratory, a team of scientists led by chemist Lisa Utschig, are working to make this a reality.

The team has linked platinum nanoparticles with algae proteins, commandeering photosynthesis to produce hydrogen. The system produces hydrogen at a rate five times greater than the previous record-setting method.

Utschig explained, “If you are considering the question ‘How do we get energy from the sun,’ you always come back to photosynthesis. Photosynthesis does it best. It’s been engineered over millions of years.”

ANL's Lisa Utschig
Chemist Lisa Utschig tests container of photosynthetic proteins linked with platinum nanoparticles |
Courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory

Most solar fuel efforts focus on a type of protein complex called Photosystem I (PSI), which is the first half of the photosynthetic duo found in all green plants. The Argonne team designed a platinum nanoparticles catalyst that links together with PSI when mixed in water.

Next steps for the team focus on improving the method’s efficiency, reliability and economics. Learn more about how nanoparticles are helping scientists harvest light with solar fuels here.

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