Thursday, September 22, 2011

Skutterudites and Thermoelectric Generators

More than 60 percent of the energy produced by cars, machines, and industry around the world is lost as waste heat. If we could use this wasted energy we could improve the efficiency with which we use fuels, and benefit the environment.

Thermoelectric generators are devices which convert heat energy directly into electrical energy. Semi-conducting bismuth telluride, Bi2Te3, can be used to convert heat into electrical energy, but it is only about 5% efficient, too low to be useful in practical thermoelectric generators.
A number of scientists have been working with skutterudites to see if they can be used to increase the efficiency of thermoelectric generators.
Skutterudites have the general formula MX3 in which M can be cobalt, rhodium or iridium, and X can be phosphorus, arsenic or antimony. The most promising of these compounds have been the CoSb3. These compounds have 32 atoms in the unit cell and can be represented with the Co atoms occupying the corners of cubes.

The thermal conductivity of CoSb3 is too high for them to be used effectively.

So scientists have tried adding fillers to the structure to reduce the thermal conductivity.
Rare earth elements and alkaline earth metals have been used as fillers.

Until recently these compounds have taken many days to make and have been expensive to produce. Oregan State University scientists have found a way to use microwaves to turn powdered metals into skutterudites in a few minutes and at a much lower cost. The first compound they produced using this technique was an indium cobalt antimonite compound in which indium is the filler.

Krishnendu Biswas, Sean Muir, M. A. Subramanian. Rapid Microwave Synthesis of Indium Filled Skutterudites: An energy efficient route to high performance thermoelectric materials. Materials Research Bulletin, 2011; DOI: 10.1016/j.materresbull.2011.08.058

Further Reading
Periodic Table
Writing Ionic Formula
Naming Ionic Compounds

Suggested Study Questions
  1. Complete the following sentences:
    • A thermoelectric generator converts heat energy into ? energy.
    • A battery converts ? energy into electrical energy.
    • In a torch, the ? energy in the battery is converted into ? energy when the torch is turned on.
    • The ? energy in petrol (gasoline) is converted into ? energy when the fuel is combusted.
    • The ? energy released during combustion of a fuel can be converted into ? energy to move a car forward.
  2. Skutterudites have the general formula MX3. Write the formula of the skutterudite formed in each of the following situations:
    • M = cobalt and X = antimony
    • M = rhodium and X = phosphorus
    • M = iridium and X = arsenic
  3. Give the name for each of the compounds formed in question 2.
  4. For each of the following pairs of atoms, determine which is the most electronegative:
    • cobalt and antimony
    • rhodium and phosphorus
    • iridium and arsenic
  5. Locate the elements cobalt, rhodium and iridium in the Periodic Table. In what ways do you expect these elements to be similar? Explain your answer.
  6. Locate the elements phosphorus, arsenic and antimony in the Periodic Table. In what ways do you expect these elements to be similar? Explain your answer.
  7. Give the names and chemical symbols of four examples of rare earth elements.
  8. Give the names and chemical symbols of four examples of alkaline earth metals.
  9. Write a possible formula for the skutterudite indium cobalt antimonite.
  10. One structure has been represented as InxCeyCo4Sb12. Explain why this is an example of a skutterudite.

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