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MIT Produces Electricity Using Thermopower Waves

Soulskill posted more than 4 years ago | from the set-on-fire-to-begin-current-flow dept.

Power 157

MikeChino writes "MIT scientists have discovered a never-before-known phenomenon wherein carbon nanotubes can be used to harness energy from 'thermopower waves.' To do this they coated the nanotubes with a reactive fuel and then lit one end, causing a fast-moving thermal wave to speed down the length of the tube. The heat from the fuel rises to a temperature of 3,000 kelvins, and can speed along the tube 10,000 times faster than the normal spread of this chemical reaction. The heat also pushes electrons down the tube, which creates a substantial electrical current. The system can output energy (in proportion to its weight) about 100x greater than an equivalent weight lithium-ion battery, and according to MIT the discovery 'opens up a new area of energy research, which is rare.'"

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157 comments

That's some hot stuff... (1)

biryokumaru (822262) | more than 4 years ago | (#31403568)

3000 K? What about cooling? Refueling? 100x seems... optimistic.

Re:That's some hot stuff... (1)

Phrogman (80473) | more than 4 years ago | (#31403626)

Yeah they mention a possible implementation of this in producing laptop batteries. I for one am not all that happy with contemplating using a laptop whose battery reaches 3000 Kelvin :P

Re:That's some hot stuff... (2, Informative)

ircmaxell (1117387) | more than 4 years ago | (#31403860)

Well, on the scale of the tube, we're not talking about that much thermal energy. Sure, it's a high temperature, but something the size of a nanotube (around 1/50,000 the width of a human hair) won't have a significant amount of energy. It really depends on the density of these tubes that's needed to achieve a usable amount of energy. And don't forget, we're talking about localized heating here... It's not that the tubes and structure need to get to 3000*k, that's just the temperature of the flame front.. A good example of the difference is the internal combustion engine... The flame front can reach around 2300*K, but the parts its made of would begin to weaken long before that: Iron's melting point is 1800*K (the material commonly used as a cylinder lying), Aluminum's melting point is only 900*K (the material commonly used for the engine block). But engines rarely melt... Steel (commonly used for the valves in the combustion chamber) loses about 50% of its strength at only 800*K... Yet these parts --aside from mechanical failure-- survive...

Re:That's some hot stuff... (1)

Rei (128717) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404302)

The notable downside is the fact that since you're destroying the tubes, this is inherently a primary cell -- no recharging that! But it's still an interesting concept. I wonder what the conversion efficiency is. And for that matter, how much energy it takes to make CNTs relative to the output energy.

Re:That's some hot stuff... (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31404360)

"Steel (commonly used for the valves in the combustion chamber) loses about 50% of its strength at only 800*K"

Lalalalala! I can't hear you! Lalalalala!

Now if you'll excuse me I've got to get back to spreading the truth about 9/11.

Re:That's some hot stuff... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31403932)

Even if not practical to use as batteries then perhaps it should have potential to make powerfull and efficient generators? Either way, what kind of fuel did they use? No mention about that.

Re:That's some hot stuff... (2, Funny)

omarius (52253) | more than 4 years ago | (#31405066)

I agree--but I am *really* looking forward to my flaming electric car. Better start trying to snag the GHST RDR plate now....

Re:That's some hot stuff... (3, Insightful)

Xerolooper (1247258) | more than 4 years ago | (#31403632)

They never said it was practical yet. It is a new area of research. Only time will tell if they discovered something useful or if they were rolling something else in a "tube" shape and smoking... ehm I mean lighting it.

Re:That's some hot stuff... (1)

polar red (215081) | more than 4 years ago | (#31403678)

100x seems... optimistic.

indeed. but only 2x or 3x means the end of the combustion engine, if the cost can be kept under control.

Re:That's some hot stuff... (1)

Nadaka (224565) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404290)

This IS a combustion engine. Or more accurately a combustion generator.

Re:That's some hot stuff... (1)

wealthychef (584778) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404930)

but only 2x or 3x means the end of the combustion engine, if the cost can be kept under control.

If I had a dime for every time I'd heard this on Slashdot.... wow. Anyhow, it's not only cost that has to be solved, of course, this is very basic research and I'm sure there are a whole host of practcal problems to overcome, any one of which could be a show stopper. Once they are all addressed, then we can start talking about cost.

Re:That's some hot stuff... (4, Interesting)

profplump (309017) | more than 4 years ago | (#31403742)

Refueling could be as simple as pouring more fuel on the nanotubes. But it may also be irrelevant -- not all power systems need to be reusable. For example, an emergency beacon is not likely to be used frequently, so refueling is not nearly as important as shelf life. And even in applications where refueling is desirable, the increased power density may be worth it -- if you phone battery lasted 200 days instead of 2 days you might not care that the battery can only be refueled with special equipment.

That being said, 100x might well be optimistic. Or it might be wildly conservative. Since this is a brand new field it seems unlikely that an estimate will be terribly accurate.

Re:That's some hot stuff... (1)

WrongSizeGlass (838941) | more than 4 years ago | (#31403898)

Small quantities could mean self-heating meals; larger implementations could be used to replace commercial boilers. Sounds promising but I'll wait for someone else to test the 'laptop battery' version, TYVM.

Re:That's some hot stuff... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31404602)

I think you read the article backwards

Re:That's some hot stuff... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31403984)

Well, let me see, you have a tube you need to load with reactive material, fire it to get energy, and then allow to cool so you can re-load it and use it again.

Hmmm. Sounds familiar. Maybe we should look up Richard Jordan Gatling and his most famous invention.....

Re:That's some hot stuff... (1)

mcgrew (92797) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404244)

2727c, 4940f for thos of us who aren't physicists. For those who aren't nerds, that's "damned hot". IIRC that's hot enough to melt steel. I don't think you'll be running your cell phone on these "batteries".

Heh (1)

Pojut (1027544) | more than 4 years ago | (#31403616)

Images of Wile E. Coyote sitting on a nano-tube rocket trying to light a fuse are taking over my mind's eye.

So basically they cut out the middleman (4, Funny)

Shadow of Eternity (795165) | more than 4 years ago | (#31403624)

Instead of having a Lion battery that explodes we now have a deliberately exploding battery.

Re:So basically they cut out the middleman (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31403728)

Then you can get the Cheetah battery.

Re:So basically they cut out the middleman (1)

kiehlster (844523) | more than 4 years ago | (#31403796)

Yes, so instead of having a laptop, we will have a crotch rocket. Furthering the cause of geeks everywhere as we can impress the ladies by confusing them into thinking we ride motorbikes.

But in all seriousness, if it produces 100x time energy, then it equates to a lighter, 30 kelvin thermowave battery in the end.

Re:So basically they cut out the middleman (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31403958)

no matter the battery (even if it's 100x current power), they'll still build laptops to run out of power in 4-6 hours. no matter what.

Re:So basically they cut out the middleman (1)

hughJ (1343331) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404144)

To drain that much power from the battery, you would be producing that much more heat, and there's definitely a limit on how quickly an average sized laptop can exhaust its heat.

Re:So basically they cut out the middleman (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31403814)

Instead of having a Lion battery that explodes we now have an explosion that acts as a battery.

There, fixed that for you...

Re:So basically they cut out the middleman (1)

hypergreatthing (254983) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404142)

Time to invest in lithium-carbon hybrids! Imagine, a world where randomly exploding lithium batteries no longer explode, but rather generate short bursts of even more electricity! Genius!

Another awesome energy discovery... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31403700)

...that will be prevented from reaching the hands of the public for all the normal reasons.

Re:Another awesome energy discovery... (1)

Jeng (926980) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404266)

As in it just was not feasible?

That is the way things work in research isn't it? You make lots of discoveries, but not all of them are useful.

Is this technology going to be feasible? No one knows yet.

Kelvins are degrees on an absolute scale... (1, Insightful)

clone53421 (1310749) | more than 4 years ago | (#31403876)

The heat from the fuel rises to a temperature of 3,000 kelvins

Since it presumably didn’t start at absolute zero, wouldn’t it have made more sense just to give the temperature in degrees Celsius?

Re:Kelvins are degrees on an absolute scale... (3, Informative)

wizardforce (1005805) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404034)

3000-273=2727C They were rounding. Also thermodynamic efficiency is easier to calculate in kelvins and is standard practice in thermodynamics; see carnot cycle for details.

Re:Kelvins are degrees on an absolute scale... (1)

clone53421 (1310749) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404934)

If they’re rounding once, they might as well round twice. These numbers are for laypersons... 2700C would be close enough.

Re:Kelvins are degrees on an absolute scale... (1)

wizardforce (1005805) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404968)

Thermodynamic systems are more often than not quoted in Kelvin. The only times they're ever really converted to Fahrenheit or Celcius is for the public's convenience. Very nearly every equation in thermodynamics works best in Kelvin as it is an absolute scale from absolute zero.

Re:Kelvins are degrees on an absolute scale... (1)

clone53421 (1310749) | more than 4 years ago | (#31405016)

Yes, but the only time it makes more sense to give the public a temperature in Kelvins is when you have some good reason for which to set the reference at absolute zero. In this case, I think it would have made more sense to convert it to Celsius, since the public will at least be somewhat familiar with that scale.

Re:Kelvins are degrees on an absolute scale... (1)

WalksOnDirt (704461) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404150)

One nice thing about kelvins is they don't need degrees. That is, it's easier to type that the temperature went up 1 K than that it went 1 degree C.

Re:Kelvins are degrees on an absolute scale... (1)

Karganeth (1017580) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404578)

There are other reasons to use kelvins. When doing calculations about the energy and stuff, the temperature needs to be in kelvins. They just didn't bother converting to celsius.

Re:Kelvins are degrees on an absolute scale... (1)

JSBiff (87824) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404856)

Since the 'size' of a Kelvin and a degree Celsius are the same, I've noticed it seems to be common practice in science that when dealing with any values larger than about 1000 deg. C, to just use Kelvins. As the parent points out, all the physics equations are based on Kelvin anyhow (since Kelvin 0 == absolute Zero), but there's also the fact that, when dealing with 'large' temperatures, the difference between Kelvin and Celsius is basically negligible.

Kelvin is the 'more correct' scale to use for science, and if you want to know what that temperature is in terms of the more 'familiar' Celsius, it's sufficient for us laymen to know that, except at temperatures less than 1000k, we can basically just say K and C are the same thing.

This is particularly true when dealing with temperatures in things like nuclear fission or fusion, stars, supernovae, etc. The difference between 10 Million K and 10 Million C is only 0.0027315 percent, so at that point, it's convenient to just view them as the same.

Even in the context of a discussion like these nanotube thermoelectric generators, if you say the temperature is above 3000K, I generally understand what that is - really darn hot, but not fission/fusion hot.

Fricken Lasers (4, Interesting)

Gotung (571984) | more than 4 years ago | (#31403884)

This sounds like a niche energy product. Basically nano-combustion that very quickly creates a very strong electrical charge.

Doesn't sound too great as a battery. But as "ammo" for hand held laser weapons? Could be perfect for that.

Re:Fricken Lasers (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31403980)

Oh yeah, that is true. We could have some pretty damn strong solid state lasers driven by these type of generator burning ordinary kerosene. That would remove the need of hauling heavy generators along with the lasers.

Re:Fricken Lasers (1)

rotide (1015173) | more than 4 years ago | (#31403986)

I was actually thinking about vehicles.

What if you had enough of these in an "engine" where you have enough nanotubes to spread fuel onto to create energy. Instead of powering pistons you could push the energy to an electric motor and perhaps a battery.

I know, I know, we want to get away from fossil fuels and we may potentially be able to with this but even if we can't, if this is more energy efficient it may still be worth it.

Re:Fricken Lasers (1)

Monkeedude1212 (1560403) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404046)

Screw Lasers - I want to fire the actual electrons at the guy. The target will be so staticly charge his pubic hair will shoot out of his crotch causing him to double over in physical and emotional pain, thereby rendering him neutralized but not killed, an effective non-lethal weapon.

Re:Fricken Lasers (1)

danlip (737336) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404264)

what if your target shaves down there?

Re:Fricken Lasers (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31404384)

They just need to make sure the charge is enough to cause his penis to strongly repel both his balls and himself.

I get an “Ouch” feeling just having the idea.

Re:Fricken Lasers (1)

Monkeedude1212 (1560403) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404392)

Unless they shave all over, the effect should also take place in Arm-pits, the head, arms, legs, etc.

So this weapon is essentially useless on professional swimmers.

Re:Fricken Lasers (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31404510)

Phelps has become the ultimate weapon! Again!

Re:Fricken Lasers (2, Funny)

ColdWetDog (752185) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404748)

So this weapon is essentially useless on professional swimmers.

Not to worry. That's what the sharks with lasers are for.

Re:Fricken Lasers (1)

wizardforce (1005805) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404064)

It's more like a fuel cell in that it uses fuel to produce a current but it is small enough and light enough to be potentially usable in devices that otherwise would use a battery. Also, the mechanism by which it produces a current implies that it can use a variety of fuels; pretty much anything that burns hot enough which is extremely useful.

Re:Fricken Lasers (2, Funny)

stms (1132653) | more than 4 years ago | (#31405100)

But alas the technology to allow sharks to use them is still years away. (Looks off into the distance) but an evil genius can dream.

Link to the Nature Materials article (4, Informative)

reverseengineer (580922) | more than 4 years ago | (#31403890)

The orignal article may be found here [nature.com] - subscription to Nature Materials or payment required for full text. Abstract:

Theoretical calculations predict that by coupling an exothermic chemical reaction with a nanotube or nanowire possessing a high axial thermal conductivity, a self-propagating reactive wave can be driven along its length. Herein, such waves are realized using a 7-nm cyclotrimethylene trinitramine annular shell around a multiwalled carbon nanotube and are amplified by more than 104 times the bulk value, propagating faster than 2 m s-1, with an effective thermal conductivity of 1.28±0.2kWm-1K-1 at 2,860K. This wave produces a concomitant electrical pulse of disproportionately high specific power, as large as 7kW kg-1, which we identify as a thermopower wave. Thermally excited carriers flow in the direction of the propagating reaction with a specific power that scales inversely with system size. The reaction also evolves an anisotropic pressure wave of high total impulse per mass (300 N s kg-1). Such waves of high power density may find uses as unique energy sources.

The "fuel" used, cyclotrimethylene trinitramine, may be better known as the explosive RDX.

Re:Link to the Nature Materials article (4, Funny)

garg0yle (208225) | more than 4 years ago | (#31403950)

Yeah, I doubt that I'm gonna be able to bring a laptop on a plane with RDX in its battery...

RDX in a laptop (1)

shivamib (1034310) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404518)

A laptop rigged with C4 gives a whole new meaning to "wrong password. you have one attempt remaining... before being blown to pieces ."

This is data security.

Warning: this post may contain high-explosive materials. Read at your own risk.

Re:Link to the Nature Materials article (1)

Yetihehe (971185) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404022)

So esentially they've made the smallest EMP weapon and are using it as a battery? Mind boggling.

I should've invented this! (1)

wfolta (603698) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404292)

All those hours of reading Slashdot and watching movies with all kinds of stuff being blown up, and I didn't put 2 and 2 together to get RDX-powered nanotubes. I feel like I missed my calling.

This is one power-generation technology, however, where you do NOT want a device that goes to 11.

Re:Link to the Nature Materials article (3, Informative)

reverseengineer (580922) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404364)

Despite my efforts to fix those exponents after pasting in the abstract, it looks like I missed one- it should read,"amplified by more than 10^4 times the bulk value," not "amplified by more than 104 times the bulk value." The above linked abstract uses superscripts, and (hopefully) contains the correct values for everything.

Proving Ted Stevens wrong (1)

snspdaarf (1314399) | more than 4 years ago | (#31403930)

So, batteries are just a series of tubes? Or just tubes in series?

Re:Proving Ted Stevens wrong (1)

mcgrew (92797) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404860)

Ever take a flashlight battery apart? It's just a tube filled with carbon and stuff.

Re:Proving Ted Stevens wrong (1)

clone53421 (1310749) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404972)

There are actually a few different kinds. Some have a carbon electrode at the positive terminal. Others have this silvery white goo at the negative terminal. Apparently the latter is cheaper, because back when I was actively destroying stuff (like dead batteries) I noticed that really large and really old batteries had the carbon, but cheaply made, smaller, and newer batteries did not.

9 volt batteries also had a few different types: 6 skinny round self-enclosed batteries packed in 2 rows of 3 and connected in series, or 6 cells stacked together with one metal case around the whole thing.

Once again. (1)

Cur8or (1220818) | more than 4 years ago | (#31403952)

How many times do we have to solve the energy crisis for it to really go away? Oh, and where is my jetpack? (I am happy with the progress we have made with water guns. Seems there is a group of scientists dedicated to creating more awesome super soakers)

Old news (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31404006)

Blue-darts have been a popular outdoor science experiment since the 4th grade.

All right. (1)

Skidborg (1585365) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404020)

Which scientist first came up with the idea of lighting these things on fire anyway?

Re:All right. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31404082)

That would be the esteemed quantum physicist, Dr. Beavis.

Phased plasma rifle in the 40-watt range... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31404092)

Hmm, one shot cartridge power supplies....

This isn't exactly "new" methinks (1)

Khyber (864651) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404148)

If you read the description of how things work - it's almost the EXACT same design principle of the home-made EMP bomb that you could read about in an early 90's issue of Popular Science, just instead of using sequential plastique explosives and a wound copper tube, you're using a carbon nanotube and some other energy source. Same idea, though - burn from the back, go forwards, create a powerful burst of energy.

It's about 15 years new.

Re:This isn't exactly "new" methinks (1)

pclminion (145572) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404740)

Other than the use of explosives, the two techniques don't really have much in common. In the thermopower technology, the explosion serves to "throw" electrons toward one end of a chamber, generating a current. The movement of the electrons is the objective. In an EMP, the objective is the controlled obliteration of the conductor itself, in order to "squeeze" the magnetic field into an extremely tight packet, ultimately causing the magnetic flux to become unconstrained, generating a large EM pulse. Thermopower is charge-carrier based, whereas EMP is EM-field based.

Re:This isn't exactly "new" methinks (1)

jebrew (1101907) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404804)

So it was just 3-5 years away 15 years ago? Then you're saying it might actually only be 2-3 years away now? I look forward to having these in my cell phone sometime around 2025!

Boredom is evil. (1)

bluefoxlucid (723572) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404160)

People should never be bored, especially smart people.

What we have here is some idiot with access to a lot of high technology designing himself a tiny little cannon fuse. Let's burn something, this will be cool. This was obvious, but you're not doing this in your basement; the results aren't obvious, of course. But hey, we have a tiny little tube, like a string or a hair or something; let's light one end and watch it burn!

This is why smart people should never be bored. They shouldn't sit around staring at a wall. They need to find something to play with. The best inventions are usually the simplest shit. Sure the telephone was cool, and that light bulb thing; but some guy was trying to figure out how amber works, and figured out that eletrostatic charge and magnetism aren't the same thing way, way before that. The whole field of research into electricity comes from rubbing a little rod against a piece of cloth and using it to make feathers fly around.

Re:Boredom is evil. (1)

Gerafix (1028986) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404390)

Hmm, whenever I rub my little rod on a piece of cloth I never get feathers flying around.

Re:Boredom is evil. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31405196)

Well, fuck a duck.

"Stewardess, do you have a match?" (1)

Culture20 (968837) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404222)

"I need to light my laptop battery wick."
Somehow I think this is for non-portable energy generation.

"Produces" Electricity? (0, Troll)

commodore73 (967172) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404334)

People who think we can "produce" electricity need to take a science class. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conservation_of_energy [wikipedia.org]

Re:"Produces" Electricity? (1)

Gerafix (1028986) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404450)

Production /= creation.

Re:"Produces" Electricity? (1)

commodore73 (967172) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404706)

It depends on your definition; yield would be a more appropriate term. My point was that the news media easily distorts headlines like this - for example, the news talks about the blume box as if it creates energy from nothing. People that know better need to be more clear about where the energy comes from. Many people don't get past the headlines.

Re:"Produces" Electricity? (1)

BJ_Covert_Action (1499847) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404878)

Many people also don't give a damn about where the energy comes from. They want to know if they can hook it up to their car and/or cell phone. They want to know if they have to visit a gas pump to make it work. I'm not saying I disagree with you on the semantics. To us sci/tech literate folk its annoying to see something as basic as energy conservation ignored in speak. However, most people don't care about anything other than how easy it is to use, and how cheap it is. The media, even the science/tech media, tends to pander to this attitude.

Re:"Produces" Electricity? (1)

commodore73 (967172) | more than 4 years ago | (#31405132)

BTW, I am familiar with !=, but what does /= mean?

neato (1)

binaryseraph (955557) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404426)

While not really all that useful as a battery on a small scale, this sounds like an excellent back-up system on an industrial scale. If you have ever had to work around back up battery systems for large scale computer operations, they are a pain in the ass and take up quite a bit of space for some not-so-impressive voltage.

Efficiency? (1)

JSBiff (87824) | more than 4 years ago | (#31404992)

Can anyone who has read the journal paper comment on what kind of thermal/electric conversion efficiency they saw in this process? Did they provide any information as to whether the efficiency was proportional to temperature (i.e. with heat engines, we have the Carnot Efficiency theorem which shows that the maximum theoretical efficiency is proportional to the difference between the maximum and minimum temperatures - do these nanotubes conform to the same, or similar, principle)?

How hot can nanotubes get before breaking down? Could these carbon nanotubes be used with a heat source like coal or nuclear fission or fusion, to generate electricity more efficiently than a steam turbine? (I suppose the tricky part there is that the article describes using a 'thermal wave' to generate the electrical current, and coal/nuclear generally produce a pretty constant heat source, instead of a cyclical heat source, but I suppose there might be some clever way to produce thermal waves from a constant heat source)?

If they couldn't be used to replace a steam turbine, could they somehow be setup as a 'secondary stage' to produce more electricity from the 'waste heat' from the steam turbine?

This FP For GNAA (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31405036)

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