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High-performance flat-panel solar thermoelectric generators with high thermal concentration

Abstract

The conversion of sunlight into electricity has been dominated by photovoltaic and solar thermal power generation. Photovoltaic cells are deployed widely, mostly as flat panels, whereas solar thermal electricity generation relying on optical concentrators and mechanical heat engines is only seen in large-scale power plants. Here we demonstrate a promising flat-panel solar thermal to electric power conversion technology based on the Seebeck effect and high thermal concentration, thus enabling wider applications. The developed solar thermoelectric generators (STEGs) achieved a peak efficiency of 4.6% under AM1.5G (1 kW m−2) conditions. The efficiency is 7–8 times higher than the previously reported best value for a flat-panel STEG, and is enabled by the use of high-performance nanostructured thermoelectric materials and spectrally-selective solar absorbers in an innovative design that exploits high thermal concentration in an evacuated environment. Our work opens up a promising new approach which has the potential to achieve cost-effective conversion of solar energy into electricity.

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Figure 1: Structure of a STEG cell.
Figure 2: STEG cell performance characteristics.
Figure 3: Performance under varying ambient conditions.
Figure 4: Directions for improvement.

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Acknowledgements

This material is partially based on work supported as part of the ‘Solid State Solar-Thermal Energy Conversion Center (S3TEC)’, an Energy Frontier Research Center funded by the US Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Basic Energy Sciences under Award Number: DE-SC0001299/DE-FG02-09ER46577 (G.C. and Z.F.R.) and MIT-Masdar program (G.C. and M.C.).

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Authors

Contributions

D.K. carried out modelling and simulation, initial STEG-efficiency experiments, and contributed to the manuscript preparation; B.P. conducted the experiments reported in the paper; H-P.F., J.C.C. and B.Y. contributed to the development of electrical contacts used for devices; X.Y. made the n-type TE elements; Y.M. fabricated the devices; X.W. prepared the absorbers; D.W. assisted in making the TE elements and electrical contacts; A.M. performed device testing; K.M. participated in device modelling and manuscript preparation; M.C. contributed to research planning and student (D.K.) supervision; Z.F.R. directed materials and device research at BC, and contributed to manuscript preparation; G.C. originated the idea and contributed to the manuscript preparation, in addition to directing research at MIT.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Zhifeng Ren or Gang Chen.

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Competing interests

Z.F.R. and G.C. are co-founders of GMZ Energy.

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Kraemer, D., Poudel, B., Feng, HP. et al. High-performance flat-panel solar thermoelectric generators with high thermal concentration. Nature Mater 10, 532–538 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/nmat3013

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