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University of Minnesota engineering researchers discover new source for generating 'green' electricity

June 21, 2011

University of Minnesota engineering researchers in the College of Science and Engineering have recently discovered a new alloy material that converts heat directly into electricity. This revolutionary energy conversion method is in the early stages of development, but it could have wide-sweeping impact on creating environmentally friendly electricity from waste heat sources.

Researchers say the material could potentially be used to capture waste heat from a car’s exhaust that would heat the material and produce electricity for charging the battery in a hybrid car. Other possible future uses include capturing rejected heat from industrial and power plants or temperature differences in the ocean to create electricity. The research team is looking into possible commercialization of the technology.

“This research is very promising because it presents an entirely new method for energy conversion that’s never been done before,” said University of Minnesota aerospace engineering and mechanics professor Richard James, who led the research team.“It’s also the ultimate ‘green’ way to create electricity because it uses waste heat to create electricity with no carbon dioxide.”

To create the material, the research team combined elements at the atomic level to create a new multiferroic alloy, Ni45Co5Mn40Sn10. Multiferroic materials combine unusual elastic, magnetic and electric properties. The alloy Ni45Co5Mn40Sn10 achieves multiferroism by undergoing a highly reversible phase transformation where one solid turns into another solid. During this phase transformation the alloy undergoes changes in its magnetic properties that are exploited in the energy conversion device.

During a small-scale demonstration in a University of Minnesota lab, the new material created by the researchers begins as a non-magnetic material, then suddenly becomes strongly magnetic when the temperature is raised a small amount. When this happens, the material absorbs heat and spontaneously produces electricity in a surrounding coil. Some of this heat energy is lost in a process called hysteresis. A critical discovery of the team is a systematic way to minimize hysteresis in phase transformations. The team’s research was recently published in the first issue of the new scientific journal Advanced Energy Materials.

Watch a short research video of the new material suddenly become magnetic when heated: http://z.umn.edu/conversionvideo.

In addition to Professor James, other members of the research team include University of Minnesota aerospace engineering and mechanics post-doctoral researchers Vijay Srivastava and Kanwal Bhatti, and Ph.D. student Yintao Song. The team is also working with University of Minnesota chemical engineering and materials science professor Christopher Leighton to create a thin film of the material that could be used, for example, to convert some of the waste heat from computers into electricity.

“This research crosses all boundaries of science and engineering,” James said. “It includes engineering, physics, materials, chemistry, mathematics and more. It has required all of us within the university’s College of Science and Engineering to work together to think in new ways.”

Funding for early research on the alloy came from a Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research (involving other universities including the California Institute of Technology, Rutgers University, University of Washington and University of Maryland), and research grants from the U.S. Air Force and the National Science Foundation. The research is also tentatively funded by a small seed grant from the University of Minnesota’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment.

For more detail on the research, read the entire paper published in Advanced Energy Materials at http://z.umn.edu/energyalloy.

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During a small-scale demonstration in the lab, University of Minnesota researchers showed how their new material can spontaneously produce electricity when the temperature is raised a small amount. Pictured (from left) are aerospace engineering and mechanics professor Richard James, Ph.D. student Yintao Song and post-doctoral researchers Kanwal Bhatti and Vijay Srivastava.

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