Thermoelectric generators (also called Seebeck generators) are devices that convert heat (temperature differences) directly into electrical energy, using a phenomenon called the Seebeck effect (a form of thermoelectric effect).
In 1821, Thomas Johann Seebeck discovered that a thermal gradient formed between two dissimilar conductors produces a voltage. At the heart of the thermoelectric effect is the fact that a temperature gradient in a conducting material results in heat flow; this results in the diffusion of charge carriers. The flow of charge carriers between the hot and cold regions in turn creates a voltage difference. In 1834, Jean Charles Athanase Peltier discovered the reverse effect, that running an electric current through the junction of two dissimilar conductors could, depending on the direction of the current, cause it to act as a heater or cooler.
Their typical efficiencies are around 5–8%. Older devices used bimetallic junctions and were bulky. More recent devices use highly doped semiconductors made from bismuth telluride (Bi2Te3), lead telluride (PbTe), calcium manganese oxide, or combinations thereof, depending on temperature. These are solid-state devices and unlike dynamos have no moving parts, with the occasional exception of a fan or pump.
Thermoelectric generators can be applied in a variety of applications. Usually, thermoelectric generators are used for small applications where heat engines (which are bulkier but more efficient) such as Stirling engines would not be possible. Another deciding factor is that while inefficient, thermoelectric generators are more reliable and have a smaller chance of breaking over time and use. Spacecraft are a typical example of an application where maintenance is next to impossible after launch.
The most common application is the use of thermoelectric generators on gas pipelines. For example, for cathodic protection, radio communication, and other telemetry. On gas pipelines for power consumption of up to 5 kW thermal generators are preferable to other power sources. The manufacturers of generators for gas pipelines are Global Thermoelectric (Calgary, Canada) and TELGEN (Russia)
Thermoelectric Generators are primarily used as remote and off-grid power generators for unmanned sites. They are the most reliable power generator in such situations as they do not have moving parts (thus virtually maintenance free), work day and night, perform under all weather conditions, and can work without battery backup. Although Solar Photovoltaic systems are also implemented in remote sites, Solar PV may not be a suitable solution where solar radiation is low, ie. areas at higher latitudes with snow or no sunshine, areas with lots of cloud or tree canopy cover, dusty deserts, forests, etc.
Global Thermoelectric (Canada) has Hybrid Solar-TEG solutions where the Thermolectric Generator backs up the Solar-PV, such that if the Solar panel is down, due to dirt or snow, etc., and the backup battery backup goes into deep discharge then a sensor starts the TEG as a backup power source until the Solar is up again. The TEG heat is produced from a low pressure flame fuelled by a Propane tank or by Natural Gas, more at the Never Fail Solar. Note that a Thermoelectric Generator is considered a more reliable power source compared to Solar as it has no moving parts and works day/night under all weather, thus it can be used to backup Solar PV.
Cars and other automobiles produce waste heat (in the exhaust and in the cooling agents). Harvesting that heat energy, using a thermoelectric generator, can increase the fuel efficiency of the car. For more details, see the article: Automotive Thermoelectric Generators.
In addition to automobiles, waste heat is also generated in many other places, such as in industrial processes and in heating (wood stoves, outdoor boilers, cooking, oil and gas fields, pipelines, and remote communication towers). Again, the waste heat can be reused to generate electricity. In fact, several companies have begun projects in installing large quantities of these thermoelectric devices. Some companies include TEGPRO (), Thermal Electronics Corp., Custom Thermoelectric(), Marlow Industries, tecteg MFR., wellentech and TEG Power. Other companies are developing consumer-level applications to capture the energy commonly wasted during cooking. A handful of USB cooking products have emerged, such as the BioLite stoves, Hatsuden Nabe thermoelectric cookpot Stove Lite - Light up your room with your Wood Stove Stealth Power Systems, and the PowerPot. Wood stove TEG12VDC-24AIR and TEG12VDC-24LIQUID TEG Generators producing enough power to trickle charge 12VDC and 24VDC batteries. Thermal Electronics Corp. Devil Watt Wood stove Thermoelectric Generators produce as much as 50 Watts of Power. Devil Watt Tegulator Thermoelectric Generator Energy Harvesting Modules convert very low voltage into regulated outputs of 1.8, 2.2, 3.0, 3.3 and 5.0 volts. Tegulator
Microprocessors generate waste heat. Researchers have considered whether some of that energy could be recycled. (However, see below for problems that can arise.)
Solar cells use only the high frequency part of the radiation, while the low frequency heat energy is wasted. Several patents about the use of thermoelectric devices in tandem with solar cells have been filed. The idea is to increase the efficiency of the combined solar/thermoelectric system to convert the solar radiation into useful electricity.
Thermoelectric generators typically have lower efficiency than mechanical generators such as Stirling engines, i.e. they generate less electric power for the same heat flow. For a discussion of the factors determining and limiting efficiency, and ongoing efforts to improve the efficiency, see the article Thermoelectric materials - Device efficiency.
Besides low efficiency and high cost, two general problems exist in such devices: high output resistance and adverse thermal characteristics.
High output resistance - in order to get a significant output voltage a very high Seebeck coefficient is needed (high V/°C). A common approach is to place many thermo-elements in series, causing the effective output resistance of a generator to be very high (>10Ω). Thus power is only efficiently transferred to loads with high resistance; power is otherwise lost across the output resistance. A generator with very high output impedance is effectively a temperature sensor, not a generator. This problem is solved in some commercial devices by putting more elements in parallel and fewer in series.
Adverse thermal characteristics - because low thermal conductivity is required for a good thermoelectric generator, this can severely dampen the heat dissipation of such a device (i.e. thermoelectric generators serve as poor heat sinks). They are only economical when a high temperature (>200°C) can be used and when only small amounts of power (a few watts) are needed.