The key to saving vast amounts of energy? It's right there on your kitchen counter, say scientists at Oregon State University.
These researchers say they discovered that the simple microwave energy that pops the corn and warms the frozen burrito can also be employed to really easily make "skutterudites."
And you're asking: "What are skutterudites?"
Well, these are compounds that have thermoelectric properties – the ability to convert heat into electricity.
Cheap and easy thermoelectric materials are a bit of a holy grail of energy efficiency because so many of the power systems we use give off tons of waste heat that if we could capture – with the aid of thermoelectric materials – would be hugely useful.
The Oregon State researchers think they might be onto something for the simple reason that it was heretofore a major pain to make skutterudites. But with microwave technology, they claim they can heat powdered metals to 1,800 degrees in just a few minutes – instead of the three or four days it used to take – to produce skutterudites.
"We need materials that are low cost, nontoxic and stable, and highly efficient at converting low-grade waste heat into electricity," said Mas Subramanian, the Milton Harris Professor of Materials Science at Oregon State.
"In material science, that's almost like being a glass and a metal at the same time. It just isn't easy. Because of these obstacles almost nothing has been done commercially in large scale thermoelectric power generation."
That could change after the Oregon State researchers created skutterudites with microwave technology with an indium cobalt antimonite compound (and they believe others compounds could also work).
"We were surprised this worked so well," Subramanian said. "Right now large-scale thermoelectric generation of electricity is just a good idea that we couldn't make work. In the future it could be huge."