The study of the thermoelectric effect at the scale of a molecule suggests a strong possibility for improving the efficiency with which certain materials recover heat losses to produce electricity.
Observing an electric current in a single molecule is quite complicated, because an electrical circuit must be created on a nanometric scale – complicated but not impossible for our molecular electronics researchers who have taken up the challenge by using ultra-fine gold wire.
Their objective is to study for the first time at such a small scale a molecule’s thermoelectric properties, i.e. the current generated by a molecule when it is heated on one side and not on the other. Their results have been published in Nature Nanotechnology.
What’s the use of this? Many processes produce large heat losses, such as those that power wind turbines, cars, computers, the sun or the human body. Many scientists, including Pascal Gehring of the Institute of Condensed Matter and Nanosciences, dream of harvesting electricity from such heat losses. Thermoelectric materials make it possible to do this, but their efficiency remains very low. The present study suggests that it is possible to improve their efficiency by engineering the molecules that make them up.
Pascal Gehring’s explanations of this scientific breakthrough (English audio):