Some Applications of Thermoelectric Generators

The unparalleled reliability and simplicity of the thermoelectric generators make them the preferred device in applications in which unattended operation is more important than efficiency. These applications include:

1. Power supplies for spacecraft that operate too far from the sun to take advantage of photovoltaics.

2. Topping cycles for stationary power plants (potentially).

3. Generators for oil-producing installations, including ocean platforms.

4. Electric power providers for air-circulating fans in residential heating systems that otherwise would not operate during periods of electric power failures.

5. Power supplies for automotive use that take advantage of the heat that the engines shed.

6. Generators that produce the energy necessary to open the main valve in gas heating systems. The heat of the pilot flame activates the generator. The main gas valve will not open unless the pilot is ignited.

Thermoelectric devices are totally silent—a virtue in many cases where noises would be distracting or unacceptable, as aboard submarines, for example.

Thermoelectric generators are much less efficient than mechanical heat engines—up to a point. As pointed out by Vining (2008b), engines, unlike thermocouples, tend to become less efficient as their output power decreases, and below some 100 W, the advantage falls to thermoelectrics.

The heat necessary to drive thermoelectric generators may come from any number of sources. For example, it can come from the burning of fuel, from radioactive decay, or from reject heat, such as exhaust gases in an automobile. It appears that the recovery of reject heat in automobiles can make an important contribution to the overall efficiency of automobiles, a topic of growing importance.

Radionuclide decay is a heat source for generating electricity in space and in remote locations. Table 5.6 from a University of New York at

Table 5.6 Radionuclides Used in RTGs





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