Interviews with plenary lecturers of the XII SBPMat Meeting: Mercouri G. Kanatzidis (Northwestern University – USA).

About two-thirds of all used energy is lost as waste heat. Bulk thermoelectrics (materials that can directly convert temperature differences to electric voltage and vice-versa) can improve this current situation by transforming some of the waste heat into useful electricity, but, in most cases their conversion efficiency is not sufficient to allow for commercial use. This efficiency is related to the ability of electrons to traverse the materials as they are excited by heat and to phonon scattering, and it is measured by the so-called ZT values (the higher a material’s ZT, the higher its conversion efficiency).

Efforts have been made to enhance the efficiency of thermoelectric materials, mainly by nanostructuring them. In his plenary talk at the XII SBPMat Meeting, professor Mercouri Kanatzidis (Northwestern University, USA) will present his panoscopic approach to highly efficient thermoelectrics. This approach considers not only the nanostructure of the material but also its mesoscale architecture. Using this strategy, professor Kanatzidis and his collaborators developed the top-performing thermoelectric system at any temperature, a lead telluride (PbTe) – based material. The achievement was published in the journal Nature in September 2012 (doi:10.1038/nature11439). The speaker will also address in his talk the substitution of tellurium by sulfur or selenium in thermoelectric materials for cost reduction.

Professor Kanatzidis obtained his BSc from Aristotle University (Greece) and his PhD in chemistry from the University of Iowa. He was a University Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at the Michigan State University before moving to the Northwestern University, where he heads a research group focused in solid-state inorganic chemistry. Mercouri is also the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Solid State Chemistry and Senior Scientist at the Materials Science Division of the Argonne National Laboratory.

See below our interview with the lecturer.

SBPMat: – Could you exemplify some possible concrete applications of high-performance thermoelectric materials in daily life? In your opinion, how far is the real use of thermoelectric materials from the state-of-the-art?

Mercouri Kanatzidis (M.K.):  – Thermoelectric materials can be applied to internal combustion engines to help harvest exhaust heat and generate electricity that can be applied to the vehicle’s electrically driven devices. This will raise the overall efficiency of the vehicle. There is a staggering amount of energy in exhaust heat of a fossil fuel powered engine. Major auto companies in the US, Germany and Japan are actively developing this technology. Depending on the price of oil, government regulations and cost of the technology the implementation of thermoelectric materials in autos, trucks, etc may take anywhere from a couple of years to decades.

SBPMat: – Which are the thermoelectrics´ next challenges for materials science and engineering?

M.K.: – The current state of performance of thermoelectric materials is adequate for commercial applications. The next challenges lie in the fabrication of actually thermoelectric modules and devices that will pass the necessary testing before final application. Challenges such as long term stability, low cost assembly and fatigue testing need to be addressed.

SBPMat: – Can you share with us, very briefly, the story of the genesis of your panoscopic approach to highly efficient thermoelectric materials?

M.K.:  – About ten years ago we had a novel material composition which had two unlikely characteristics. It had a very high electrical conductivity and thermoelectric power combined with surprisingly low thermal conductivity. The thermal conductivity was lower than theory could explain. This material was first of its kind (referred to as LAST for lead, antimony, silver, tellurium) at that time to display a breakthrough ZT of 1.6, nearly double of the then state of the art. Because of this we delved deeply onto its “guts” using transmission electron microscopy in collaboration with Professors Polychroniadis and Frangis of the University of Thessaloniki in Greece. A few months after they received the samples they reported to us on their findings with a somewhat disappointing note saying that the materials were very complex and inhomogeneous on the nanoscale, therefore impure. In discussions I detected reluctance to deal with the material again. They did. In my lab however we immediately recognized that this very inhomogeneity and the nanoscale precipitates it contained was the root cause of the surprisingly very low thermal conductivity and the very high ZT. This was consistent with theoretical predictions emerging at the time that nanoscale precipitation in a matrix can result in great reduction in thermal conductivity. So we got very excited. We had discovered nanostructuring in thermoelectrics. After our paper appeared in Science in 2004, the thinking of the thermoelectrics community quickly shifted from pursuing single phase materials to focusing on more complex two-phase nanostructured materials. Now the great majority of activity in the community is in nanostructured materials.

The new paradigm led to additional breakthroughs such as how to design and synthesize nanostructured materials, and to higher ZT as well. The panoscopic approach was realized when we were challenged to create two-phase materials that did not degrade electronic transport through them. While matrix of a thermoelectric material with a small amount of a second phase in it can achieve unprecedented levels of low thermal conductivity, it nevertheless is an “impure system” and electrons transported through such a medium know this. Thus, in most cases the second phase degrades the electrical properties and higher ZTs are not realized.

State of the art thermoelectric: (a) A mesoscaled granular composite of broad range of grain sizes to scatter long mean free path phonons. (b) Wwithin a single grain a ubiquitous nanostructuring is in place of a second phase that scatters short and intermediate mean free path phonons. The (a)/(b) combination results in a very low levels of thermal conductivity.

My group members Kanishka Biswas and Lidong Zhao and our collaborators Ctirad Uher and Vinayak Dravid noticed that when SrTe was added to p-type PbTe in as much as 2-4% concentration the hole carriers were behaving as if no SrTe was there. The explanation to this puzzle came from the recognition which was backed by theoretical calculations that the conduction bands in PbTe and SrTe were similar in energy and the holes as a result could traverse the SrTe nanoparticles with no scattering. This led to the concept to band alignment between matrix and second phase. The PbTe-SrTe material with its nanostructuring and band alignment was another material with ZT~1.7. As we realized that different ZT improving mechanisms could be integrated in a single system without the effect of one interfering with those of the other, we extended our approach to trying to integrate all possible mechanisms. We managed to properly introduce electronic band engineering for thermoelectric power enhancement and mesoscale engineering for further reduction on the thermal conductivity to reach the point we now are a record breaking ZT of 2.2. This is very exciting and bodes well for further breakthroughs in the near future.

SBPMat: – Feel free to leave any other comments about your plenary lecture for our readers.

M.K.: – My lecture will be aimed at reaching the broad but scientifically informed audience at the meeting to outline the current state and thinking in the field of thermoelectrics.

See the abstract of Mercouri Kanatzidis plenary lecture “Electrical power from heat: All-scale hierarchical thermoelectrics with and without earth-abundant materials”.

See Professor Kanatzidis biographical sketch.


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