A project led by researchers at University College Cork (UCC) has received €3.5m in EU funding to develop a revolutionary way of converting waste heat into electricity.

The Translate project will involve scientists from Ireland, Germany, Latvia and Spain.
Building on advances in nanochemistry and materials science, UCC’s Prof Justin Holmes and the research team aim to construct a device that can harvest and store waste heat produced by power generators, factories and domestic heating systems.

“Every day we lose 70pc of all the energy we produce in our homes, offices and factories in the form of heat, which evaporates away into the atmosphere,” Holmes said.

“The aim of Translate is to develop a reliable, low-carbon technology that can harvest as much as possible of this waste heat and turn it into electricity.”

‘Cutting-edge’ theory

Although thermoelectric generators can already convert heat directly into electricity, these devices require costly, unsustainable materials and complication fabrication methods, which researchers said makes them too inefficient and expensive to deploy on a global scale.

The idea for Translate came from a recent materials science breakthrough made by researchers at the Technical University of Darmstadt, which has made it theoretically possible to construct a device that could overcome these obstacles.

“The principle is based on nanoscale channels filled with a salt solution,” explained Prof Steffen Hardt of the Technical University of Darmstadt.

“When the end of one channel is hotter than the other, the difference in temperature causes the ions to redistribute inside the channel, which in turn creates an electric field along the channel. This field causes an electric current to flow, which can be harvested, and thus heat is converted into electric energy.”

Dr Kafil Razeeb leads the Advanced Energy Materials Group at Tyndall National Institute, based at UCC. He said the team will apply Darmstadt’s “cutting-edge” theoretical understanding of how ions move through nanochannels, and look to develop a prototype device that can efficiently convert any wasted heat below 100 degrees Celsius into usable energy.

“We will build this using only low-cost and non-toxic materials in order to create a sustainable device that can power the future generation of wireless sensors and wearable tech,” Razeeb added.

Over the next four years, researchers at UCC and Tyndall will collaborate with scientists from the Technical University of Darmstadt, the University of Latvia and Spanish tech company Cidete on this project, which could provide a major breakthrough in sustainable energy.

The project is funded under the EU’s EIC Pathfinder Pilot programme. Pathfinder was launched to transform high-risk, high-impact research ideas into novel technologies, and a record €191m was awarded to 58 research projects late last year. Three of these projects, including Translate, have strong Irish participation.

Sarah Harford

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