Thermoelectric generators predicted to be
$750 million market by 2022
Nextreme's Thermobility power-generation technology uses heat as a source of electricity for low-power wireless applications like remote sensors. Solid-state, thin-film thermoelectrics provide power anywhere there is an adequate heat source; no wired power sources or replaceable batteries required. When paired with wireless transmitters, this solution can provide electric power for decades of maintenance-free operation.
By Dr Harry Zervos, Technology Analyst, IDTechEx
Although thermoelectric phenomena have been used for heating and cooling applications quite extensively, electricity generation has only seen very limited market in niche applications, and it is only in recent years that interest has increased regarding new applications of energy generation through thermoelectric harvesting. According to IDTechEx, this growth in interest will continue and will be characterized by an overall market for thermoelectric energy harvesters that will reach $750 million by 2022.
Details on the technology and its forecasts for growth can be found in the IDTechEx report "Thermoelectric Energy Harvesting: Devices, Applications & Opportunities 2012-2022."
The Seebeck/Peltier effects
The principle phenomenon that underpins thermoelectric energy generation is known as the Seebeck effect: the conversion of a temperature differential into electricity at the junction of two materials. The conversion process is reversible (i.e., when a thermoelectric generator is connected to a power supply, it acts as a cooler/heater according to the underlying physical principle, the Peltier effect). The Peltier effect stipulates that electrical power input into a junction of two different materials leads to the creation of a temperature difference. For that reason, thermoelectric coolers are also known as Peltier coolers or Peltier modules. The Peltier and Seebeck effects are illustrated in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Representation of the Peltier (left) and the Seebeck (right) effect [Source: University of Surrey]
Markets for thermoelectric generators
Looking into some of the more substantial markets that will support the forecasted growth in the next decade, four of the main points that arise are:
1. Wireless sensors and wireless sensor networks.
Wireless sensors powered by thermoelectric generators in environments where temperature differentials exist would lead to avoiding issues with battery lifetime and reliability and lead to an increase in wireless sensor network implementations. It would also lead to the ability to move away from wired sensors, which are still the solution of choice when increased reliability of measurement over prolonged periods of time is necessary. Some applications have low enough power demands to operate with small temperature differentials, as small as a few degrees in some cases. Some other segments, on the other hand, are characterized by extreme temperature differentials but at the same time have very stringent safety requirements that could lead to long development times (e.g., condition monitoring of turbine blades while in service). These varying kinds of considerations pertaining to different segments demonstrate the versatility that needs to be demonstrated by the technology developers in order to capture available opportunities in different verticals.
2. Waste heat recovery systems in vehicles
A large number of car companies, including Volkswagen, Volvo, Ford, and BMW, in collaboration with NASA, have been developing thermoelectric waste-heat recovery systems in-house, each achieving different types of performance but all of them expecting to lead to improvements of 3% to 5% in fuel economy, while the power generated out of these devices could potentially reach up to 1,200 W. This type of application has great potential, even with the advent of vehicle electrification that would take several decades and would not entirely substitute internal combustion engine vehicles in the immediate future. At the same time, due to the high temperature tolerances necessary for waste-heat recovery systems, a lot of work is going into the development of the correct type of material systems, interconnects, etc. Again, the critical safety characteristics that need to be fulfilled in order to see widespread adoption of such technology in vehicles, along with demands for low-cost solutions, lead to longer adoption cycles by the automotive industry.
3. Consumer applications
In these applications, the type of solution that thermoelectric generators provide varies: It could be related to saving energy when cooking by utilizing thermo-powered cooking sensors; powering mobile phones, watches, or other consumer electronics; and even body sensing could become more widespread with sensory wristbands, clothing, or athletic apparel that monitor vitals such as heart rate, body temperature, etc. Developments in material and device design have led to thermoelectric devices on flexible substrates that allow for innovation in form factor that could make for seamless integration in different products.
4. Military and aerospace
In the meantime, military and aerospace applications have already become a market of several million dollars, having supported mature thermoelectric harvesting technologies for several decades now (e.g., radioisotope thermoelectric generators in space probes, satellites, etc.). These are purely performance-driven applications in a segment where cost considerations are not as important as the ability to efficiently and reliably provide power when needed most, in hostile, remote environments and applications. Even some terrestrial applications have seen adoption of thermoelectric generator technologies, with one of the more interesting examples being the installations by Global Thermoelectric, a company that has fitted thermoelectric generators worldwide in remote locations such as oil or natural gas pipelines, wells, offshore platforms, etc.
Forecasts for thermoelectric generators
Figure 2 outlines the way the market for thermoelectric generators is expected to grow in the next few years, and it clearly shows how the interest in wireless sensor applications is going to spearhead the growth of a new niche market for these types of generators from 2015 onwards. Interest in consumer applications will also increase, but the dominant market will remain that for bespoke military and aerospace applications.
The report continues to give an overview of devices, materials, and manufacturing processes, with a specific focus on emerging technologies that allow for new functionality, form factors, and applications in various demanding environments with high specificity. Whether it is operation in high temperatures or corrosive environments, applications with increased safety demands or components that need to be thin, flexible, or even stretchable, research and development work worldwide on these topics is highlighted.
For more information on any of IDTechEx's reports, please contact Alison Lewis at
IDTechEx have published over 60 reports on Printed Electronics, Photovoltaics, Energy Harvesting, Electric Vehicles, and RFID. Visit www.IDTechEx.com/research for more information.
Published October 2012
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