Skip to content
Veerle Keppens

Reclaiming Energy – Veerle Keppens

by Laura Buenning

US Department of Energy studies (2007) show only 14 to 26 percent of the energy from the fuel in your gas tank moves your car down the road. The rest is lost; 60 to 70 percent of it as heat. Industry isn’t much better; a 2008 DOE report estimates industrial energy loses from 20 to 50 percent, as hot exhaust gas, cooling water, and heat loss from hot equipment surfaces and heated products.

One possibility for recovering some of this energy lies in thermoelectric materials—substances that can generate electricity from waste heat or provide cooling when a current is passed from one side of the material to the other.

keppens_3As magical as that sounds, thermoelectric power is not a silver-bullet solution to recovering energy from the waste-heat produced by combustion engines or industrial machinery. Not only do waste-heat scenarios vary, thermoelectricity itself is not fully defined.

“Efficient thermoelectric materials require the unusual combination of poor thermal conductivity and good electrical conductivity,” says JDRD team leader Veerle Keppens.

“Electrons alone carry electricity; both electrons and the vibrations of atoms in a crystal’s lattice structure—known as phonons—carry heat. A good thermoelectric material is efficient at scattering phonons, which impedes the transfer of heat from one side of a material to the other while allowing the electrons to pass right on through,” Keppens says.

But what, exactly, hinders heat transfer is still unclear.

Keppens, PhD student Lindsay VanBebber, and ORNL LDRD team leader Olivier Delaire are looking into the influence ferroelectric properties have on atoms moving within a crystal’s lattice structure.

Ferroelectric materials have the ability to spontaneously polarize—and change their conductivity—in the presence of an electric field at specific temperatures.

keppens_2“As a whole, these materials are neutral; they have no actual charge,” Keppens says. “But,the way the tiny units inside the material are distributed makes it a little more negative on one end and a little more positive on the other”—in other words, polarized.

But, Keppens explains, this can only happen if the structure lacks symmetry.

“In a perfect crystal at absolute zero degrees, the atoms occupy well-defined positions. Raise the temperature and the atoms start to move, some differently from others. Because of that you can create peculiar lattice dynamics, depending on the structure and the atoms you put into a material.”

keppens_4In year-one the JDRD team synthesized single crystals containing a combination of lead, tin, telluride, molybdenum, and antimony and studied their physical responses with Resonant Ultrasound Spectroscopy (RUS). RUS shows when the structural change actually occurs in the material—information that adds insight into the mechanisms linking lattice dynamics with suppressed thermal conductivity.

In year two Keppens’ team will increase the temperature range of the experiments. Delaire’s team will collect neutron scattering data from crystals grown in Keppens’ lab. Together the ultrasound and neutron scattering results will help them build realistic computer simulations of the unusual lattice dynamics found in thermoelectric materials.

JDRD project:
Ferroelectric instabilities in thermoelectric materials (year 2)
Veerle Keppens, UT Materials Science and Engineering Department

LDRD project:
Improving energy efficiency in thermoelectric materials by integrating neutron scattering with supercomputing and modeling
Oliver Delaire, ORNL Materials Science and Technology Division

The flagship campus of the University of Tennessee System and partner in the Tennessee Transfer Pathway.