Thermoelectric Energy Conversion: Science and Engineering Challenges and Opportunities

By Arunava Majumdar

Mechanical Engineering, Stanford University, Stanford, CA

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The last 20 years have witnessed intense research focus on the science and engineering of solid-state thermoelectric materials, with the goal of achieving high ZT (~ 2-3) over a large temperature range and thus enabling commercial technology for waste heat recovery and cooling. While the scientific research has to led many fundamental insights about how to engineer the behavior of electrons and phonons, the promise of high ZT and widely-used commercial technology remains largely unfulfilled. For waste heat recovery, this is partly because the performance targets have been raised due to competition from increasingly lower cost of solar and wind electricity. However, with the phasing out of today's refrigerants due to the Kigali amendment of the Montreal Protocol, cooling offers an enormous opportunity if high ZT materials can be developed for room temperature operation, and system-level costs can be reduced and performance increased. The increase of ZT at room temperature requires new mechanisms and science to engineer the electronic and phononic structure and transport. This talk will provide a viewpoint of these new scientific opportunities and challenges in the context of practical performance and cost metrics. It will also offer new approaches to manipulate entropy change in liquid media for the purpose of energy conversion.


Arun Majumdar Dr. Arun Majumdar is the Jay Precourt Provostial Chair Professor at Stanford University, a faculty member of the Departments of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering (by courtesy) and co-director of the Precourt Institute for Energy, which integrates and coordinates research and education activities across all seven Schools and the Hoover Institution at Stanford. He is also a Professor Photon Science at SLAC.

Dr. Majumdar's research in the past has involved the science and engineering of nanoscale materials and devices, especially in the areas of energy conversion, transport and storage as well as biomolecular analysis. His current research focuses on electrochemical and thermochemical redox reactions that are fundamental to a sustainable energy future, multidimensional nanoscale imaging and microscopy, and a new effort to re-engineer the electricity grid using data science, including deep learning techniques.

In October 2009, Dr. Majumdar was nominated by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate to become the Founding Director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E), where he served till June 2012 and helped ARPA-E become a model of excellence for the government with bipartisan support from Congress and other stakeholders. Between March 2011 and June 2012, he also served as the Acting Under Secretary of Energy, enabling the portfolio that reported to him: Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Office of Electricity Delivery and Reliability, Office of Nuclear Energy and the Office of Fossil Energy, as well as multiple cross-cutting efforts such as Sunshot, Grid Tech Team and others that he had initiated. Furthermore, he was a Senior Advisor to the Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, on a variety of matters related to management, personnel, budget, and policy. In 2010, he was of Secretary Chu’s team that helped stopped the leak in the Deep Water Horizon (BP) oil spill.

After leaving Washington, DC and before joining Stanford, Dr. Majumdar was the Vice President for Energy at Google, where he created several energy technology initiatives, especially at the intersection of data, computing and electricity grid, and advised the company on its broader energy strategy.

Prior to joining the Department of Energy, Dr. Majumdar was the Almy & Agnes Maynard Chair Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science & Engineering at University of California–Berkeley and the Associate Laboratory Director for energy and environment at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Dr. Majumdar is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He served as the Vice Chairman of the Advisory Board of US Secretary of Energy, Dr. Ernest Moniz, and was also a Science Envoy for the US Department of State with focus on energy and technology innovation in the Baltics and Poland. He is a member of the International Advisory Panel for Energy of the Singapore Ministry of Trade and Industry. He serves as an advisor to Envision Energy, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, First Light Fusion, the New Energy Group of Royal Dutch Shell and Lime Rock New Energy. He is a member of the Board of Directors of Cyclotron Road and the Electric Power Research Institute.

Dr. Majumdar received his bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay in 1985 and his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley in 1989.

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Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  • Arunava Majumdar (2020), "Thermoelectric Energy Conversion: Science and Engineering Challenges and Opportunities,"

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