Future Tech 8 Ways We Could Recycle Our Wasted Heat

Every electrical appliance — from a humble light bulb to a MacBook Pro — leaks precious heat. Electric companies love this fact. We, on the other hand, should be looking for solutions.

Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute teamed up with the University of Wollongong in Australia to design a new material that converts heat into electricity. They mixed zinc oxide nanoparticles (the material that makes sunscreen dry clear on your skin) with aluminum and heated it in a microwave for about three minutes. The zinc oxide conducts electricity and the aluminum makes it harder for the molecules to transfer heat. The difference in temperature between the two parts of the material sparks the electrons to start an electrical current.

Though the resulting thermoelectric material is far from efficient at this point, the zinc oxide has a new property: the ability to transfer heat was lessened by twenty-fold.

Thermoelectric materials that turn heat into electricity have been around for a while, but are typically expensive and inefficient. The microwaved zinc oxide is an environmentally friendly technology that should produce affordable materials. The question is, how can we use this material to make a much-needed impact on society and the environment.

Here are eight implementations that would help the movement gain momentum.

1. Heat-Trapping Computer Mat

Laptops are getting more and more efficient, but they still lose a significant amount of heat during use. By creating a thermoelectric layer on the bottom of your computer, you can conserve some of it. This “mat” would connect to a heat pipe (a device that channels all the heat in the computer to a specific area) and turn the heat back into electricity.

The mat might also be used to charge additional devices like a mobile phone or iPod.

2. A Heater That Powers Your Lights

While modern household boilers are more efficient than their predecessors, they still waste a lot of energy as they heat your home — not to mention the significant heat lost through steam pipes. By covering your boiler and lining pipes with thermoelectric material, you would save energy while reducing the electric bill. The material can also link up to your regular (or holiday) lights, powering them with heat energy that would otherwise be wasted.

3. Hot Air Conditioner

Cooling and heating systems have used thermoelectricity in the past; however, these devices turn electricity into heat, not the other way around. They are also very inefficient and expensive. For instance, a thermoelectric cooler that holds only nine soda cans costs about $80 and uses a battery power or an AC adaptor to draw the heat away from the container. These types of devices also tend to break down easily. Despite their flaws, if you’re interested in checking out one of these bad-boys, I suggest a Koolatron.

The expense for thermoelectric home air conditioners is so high that virtually no market exists — the systems can cost upward of $900. However, this could change very soon. This technology can be improved so that the heat from the surrounding environment runs the machine — it wouldn’t require a battery or plug at all. The air conditioner would react to the heat outside, then create an electrical current that pumps cold air into the room.

4. Powering Transportation Accessories

The team that originally developed the zinc oxide material had this application in mind. A high amount of energy is required to run these types of vehicles, and a lot of heat is lost in the process. However, thermoelectric heat from turbines or pistons can power almost any vehicle accessory, from the GPS system to the automatic windows to the seat warmers. It could also prevent a car from overheating.

5. A Hot Summer Day Powers Your Car Radio

While similar to the previous idea, here the material is not attached to the engine. Rather, it’s built into the car frame’s interior and exterior. That way, the hot air outside will contact the thermoelectric material and power your car speakers, or create a hot air conditioner by extracting that same outside heat energy.

6. Body Heat Powers Your Watch

Since the advent of smartphones, watches have become optional accessories. However, expensive watches remain stylish status symbols. Thermoelectric material can break into the existing accessory industry by marketing body heat watches to mainstream tech culture.

The watch design is simple. Watches, which usually run on quartz crystal, don’t require much
to keep time. Because the human body is constantly producing heat, skin temperature would generate the watch’s energy, and then store it for long term use (say, if you haven’t worn your watch in a while). Ultimately, the clock would receive energy through a steady release of voltage.

7. The Meal You Cook Powers Your Dishwasher

Nobody really enjoys washing dishes. Besides, dishwashers guzzle up electricity. However, heat produced by your oven, stovetop or microwave could provide more than enough energy to get the cleaning job done. One patch of thermoelectric material would absorb energy during the cooking process, convert the heat to electricity, and store the energy in a capacitor. After a hearty meal with friends and family, place all the dirty dishes in the dishwasher. Once you flip the switch, the electricity collected from the hot stovetop or oven would activate the cleaning cycle.

8. Temperature Changing Clothes

In 2009, MIT graduate Kranthi Vistakula started his own clothing company in Ahmadabad, India. ClimaWare clothing uses thermoelectric material to control the wearer’s external temperature. The wearer can adjust temperature settings by pressing the modules on his clothing. The material is lightweight, no heavier than a regular pair of jeans. The only major downside? Each jacket costs about $800.

Nonetheless, this amazing technology has the capacity to revolutionize the clothing industry, especially amidst rapidly changing weather patterns. The main customers right now are the U.S. and Indian armies. And as thermoelectricity technology continues to advance, these options will become less expensive and more accessible to the public.

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