Dublin scientists generate electricity from waste

4 Feb 2011

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A team of Dublin-based scientists have discovered a way of splitting layered materials resulting in a whole family of new nanomaterials which have exceptional properties enabling exciting new technologies.

The team is led by Prof Jonathan Coleman, principal investigator at the Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices (CRANN) and the School of Physics, Trinity College Dublin, and Dr Valeria Nicolosi in the Department of Materials at the University of Oxford.

These novel materials have chemical and electronic properties which are well suited for applications in new electronic devices, super-strong composite materials and energy generation and storage. In particular, this research represents a major breakthrough towards the development of efficient thermoelectric materials.

“Of the many applications of these new materials, possibly the most important are as thermoelectric materials,” Coleman said.

“These materials, when fabricated into devices, can generate electricity from waste heat. For example, in gas-fired power plants approximately 50pc of energy produced is lost as waste heat while for coal and oil plants the figure is up to 70pc. However, development of efficient thermoelectric devices would allow this waste heat to be recycled cheaply and easily, something that has been beyond us up to now.”

Importantly, the novel technique discovered by Coleman and his collaborators is simple, fast and inexpensive and could be scaled up to work on an industrial scale.

“Our new method offers low costs, a very high yield and a very large throughput: within a couple of hours, and with just 1mg of material, billions and billions of one atom thick nanosheets can be made at the same time from a wide variety of exotic layered materials,” said Nicolosi.

Graphene materials

This research can be compared to the work regarding the two-dimensional material graphene, which won the Nobel prize in 2010. Graphene has generated significant interest because when separated into individual flakes, it has exceptional electronic and mechanical properties that are different to those of its parent crystal, graphite.

Coleman’s work will open up more than 150 similarly exotic layered materials – such as Boron Nitride, Molybdenum disulfide, and Tungsten disulfide – that have the potential to be metallic, semi-metallic or semiconducting depending on their chemical compositions and how their atoms are arranged. This new family of materials opens a whole range of new “super” materials.

Prof John Boland, director of CRANN said: “This is a major nanotechnology breakthrough developed in Ireland which has the potential to revolutionise thermoelectrics and energy storage – two major challenges facing the world at the moment. Work, like that done by Prof Coleman, reinforces Ireland’s ranking of sixth globally for nanoscience research. This work is attracting significant interest from a wide range of industries and interested parties. It’s breakthroughs like this which provide the return on the investment made in research in Ireland over the past decade.”

There are a range of other exciting applications. These materials are suited to be next-generation batteries – “supercapacitors” – which can deliver energy thousands of times faster than standard batteries, enabling new applications, such as electric cars.

Many of these new “atomic layered” materials are strong and can be added to plastics to produce super-strong composites. These will be useful in a range of industries, from simple structural plastics to aeronautics.

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com