Manufactured materials offer benefits to energy sector, climate change

Mechanical engineer Liping Wang imagines an energy sector enhanced by greater control over thermal radiation. To work toward this objective, he is designing and constructing a host of custom electromagnetic materials.

An assistant professor at Arizona State University, Wang’s endeavor is supported by a Young Investigator Program research grant from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, totaling $360,000 over three years. The program received more than 230 proposals, awarding grants to only 25 percent of applicants.

Thermal radiation refers to the transfer of energy through electromagnetic waves between objects.

Improving thermal radiation and its transport boasts improvements in energy harvesting, as well as thermal management, imaging and sensing — all of which are essential in addressing the world’s urgent need for high-efficiency renewable energy sources and energy saving materials.

But the quality of thermal radiation, and the energy it generates, is determined by the temperature and properties of the objects, known as emitters and receivers, at play.

Currently, in thermophotovoltaic systems (systems that convert thermal energy to power), efficiency is very low due to the performance of materials that make up the emitters and receivers. These systems commonly suffer from a loss of heat — known as waste heat — rather than using that heat to generate additional electricity.

All of this results in less efficient photovoltaics, and is an obstacle in ramping up the usage of solar energy and waste heat, which can be recovered and used as an emission­-free and affordable energy resource.

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