Top Image: Photo of the experimental thermophotovoltaic generator in operation.
Courtesy Walker R. Chan.


Labeled model of the experimental thermophotovoltaic generator system.
Courtesy Walker R. Chan.


Tiny Efficient Fuel-Burning Generators Could Replace Conventional Batteries

February 26th, 2013 | by Charles Q. Choi

Microchip-sized generators that burn fuel to convert heat into electricity could power smartphones, tablets, laptops and other mobile devices for much longer than batteries can, researchers say.

As power-hungry mobile devices proliferate, researchers are striving to develop clean, portable, compact sources of energy for them. Batteries are the most common way to power electronics, but the chemistry employed for them is limited in terms of how much energy they can yield per pound. In contrast, many hydrocarbon fuels — including fossil fuels and their more renewable counterparts — can provide nearly 60 times more energy per pound, leading scientists to investigate ways to harness them for mobile devices.

“Hydrocarbon fuels have energy densities two orders higher than state-of-the-art batteries,” says Ivan Celanovic, an electrical engineer at MIT. “Tapping into this dense energy source on small scales is a game-changing endeavor.”

One strategy for getting electricity from fuels involves thermophotovoltaics. Just as conventional photovoltaics convert light to electricity, thermophotovoltaics do so using the infrared rays emitted as warmth from combustion engines or any other heat source. However, until now, there were no thermophotovoltaics that worked at small scales.

Now scientists have developed a thermophotovoltaic generator the size of a microchip, just one square centimeter in area.

“It is really a small power plant in a button-sized device,” Celanovic says.

Read more: Tiny Efficient Fuel-Burning Generators Could Replace Conventional Batteries —

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