EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Researchers at Michigan State University are working on a new low-cost approach to recapturing the heat energy that is lost in car exhaust and many other industrial processes, in search of a way to improve efficiency and decrease waste.
The team is using a material based on very common naturally occurring minerals called tetrahedrites to make thermoelectric materials that have the ability to convert heat into electricity.
The project's leader is Don Morelli, a professor of chemical engineering and materials science who heads Michigan State's Center for Revolutionary Materials for Solid State Energy Conversion.
"What we've managed to do is synthesize some compounds that have the same composition as natural minerals," said Morelli. "The mineral family that they mimic is one of the most abundant minerals of this type on Earth — tetrahedrites. By modifying its composition in a very small way, we produced highly efficient thermoelectric materials."
The U.S. Department of Energy is financing the research, which involves a partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory; the University of Michigan; the University of California, Los Angeles; and Northwestern, Ohio State, and Wayne State universities.
The challenge in developing new thermoelectric materials, according to Morelli, is that many are derived from rare or toxic materials or are hard and costly to produce.
"Typically you'd mine minerals, purify them into individual elements, and then recombine those elements into new compounds that you anticipate will have good thermoelectric properties," he said. "But that process costs a lot of money and takes a lot of time. Our method bypasses much of that."
Possible applications include waste energy recovery from industrial power plants, converting vehicle exhaust heat into electricity and generating power from home furnaces, Michigan State said.