Engineering is often described as an intersection: where the conceptual meets the practical. That’s the lens through which Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Fei Ren looks at his research in power generation through nanostructured thermoelectric materials.
“When you have science and something of useful impact together, engineering is a natural option,” Dr. Ren said.
Ren is collaborating with the Materials Science and Technology Division at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where he worked prior to joining the faculty at Temple College of Engineering. Nanostructured thermoelectric materials have secondary material added to alter or tune the thermal properties of a primary material. For this research, Ren wants to know the “life cycle” of this structure inside the material—and why it performs the way it does.
“Specifically, we’re doing neutron scattering, to get an idea of how these nanostructures behave when you put them into service conditions,” Dr. Ren said.
Service conditions can be as simple as harvesting heat from a heat source, like an exhaust pipe on a vehicle, where waste heat can be converted into useful electricity.
“We want to simulate the temperature side of that service and see how stable these nanostructures are,” Dr. Ren added. Dr. Ren hopes industries can leverage this data to manufacture modules or power generators used to recover heat from different sources. Though current research is limited to the Oak Ridge collaboration, which hosts the necessary testing implements, Dr. Ren noted that interest exists on the fundamental side from organizations like the National Science Foundation and Department of Defense on the application side.
And the consumer side?
While some niche products exist—for example, camping stoves with thermo-electric device attachments that capture heat to charge cell phones or other devices—a larger market may take time to develop. As can different ones, altogether.
“Long-term, for this to be a viable industry, people have to realize we need to make better, cheaper, more ef-ficient products. In general, the market adoption depends on the perception of the public on how important our environment is,” he said.
So, can a vast energy future be built on these tiny nanostructured materials, capable in harnessing power from one source to power another? Time will tell, but Dr. Ren will continue to work on research aimed at producing positive outcomes for the public, bridging the conceptual science with the engineering reality.