Experimental device generates electricity from the coldness of the universe

Experimental device generates electricity from the coldness of the universe
A drawback of solar panels is that they require sunlight to generate electricity. Some have observed that for a device on Earth facing space, the chilling outflow of energy from the device can be harvested using the same kind of optoelectronic physics we have used to harness solar energy. New work, in Applied Physics Letters, looks to provide a potential path to generating electricity like solar cells but that can power electronics at night. This is a schematic of the experimental infrared photodiode that has generated electricity directly from the coldness of space. Credit: Masashi Ono

The obvious drawback of solar panels is that they require sunlight to generate electricity. Some have observed that for a device on Earth facing space, which has a frigid temperature, the chilling outflow of energy from the device can be harvested using the same kind of optoelectronic physics we have used to harness solar energy. New work, in a recent issue of Applied Physics Letters, looks to provide a potential path to generating electricity like solar cells but that can power electronics at night.

An international team of scientists has demonstrated for the first time that it is possible to generate a measurable amount of electricity in a diode directly from the coldness of the universe. The infrared semiconductor device faces the sky and uses the difference between Earth and space to produce the electricity.

"The vastness of the universe is a thermodynamic resource," said Shanhui Fan, an author on the paper. "In terms of optoelectronic physics, there is really this very beautiful symmetry between harvesting incoming radiation and harvesting outgoing radiation."

In contrast to leveraging incoming as a normal solar cell would, the negative illumination effect allows electrical energy to be harvested as heat leaves a surface. Today's technology, though, does not capture energy over these negative temperature differences as efficiently.

By pointing their device toward space, whose temperature approaches mere degrees from absolute zero, the group was able to find a great enough to generate power through an early design.

"The amount of power that we can generate with this experiment, at the moment, is far below what the theoretical limit is," said Masashi Ono, another author on the paper.

The group found that their negative illumination diode generated about 64 nanowatts per square meter, a tiny amount of electricity, but an important proof of concept, that the authors can improve on by enhancing the quantum optoelectronic properties of the materials they use.

Calculations made after the diode created showed that, when atmospheric effects are taken into consideration, the current device can theoretically generate almost 4 watts per square meter, roughly one million times what the group's device generated and enough to help power machinery that is required to run at night.

By comparison, today's solar panels generate 100 to 200 watts per square meter.

While the results show promise for ground-based devices directed to the sky, Fan said the same principle could be used to recover waste heat from machines. For now, he and his group are focusing on improving their 's performance.


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More information: Masashi Ono et al, Experimental demonstration of energy harvesting from the sky using the negative illumination effect of a semiconductor photodiode, Applied Physics Letters (2019). DOI: 10.1063/1.5089783
Journal information: Applied Physics Letters

Citation: Experimental device generates electricity from the coldness of the universe (2019, May 6) retrieved 25 June 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2019-05-experimental-device-electricity-coldness-universe.html
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May 06, 2019
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May 06, 2019
Not sure I can see this being of much use on Earth. (Too much weather, light pollution and just plain pollution.) If it can be made more efficient, maybe it can be a useful power source on the moon during the lunar night, tapping energy radiating from the lunar surface.

May 07, 2019
Not sure I can see this being of much use on Earth.

There's plenty of environmental sensors that could run on that amount of energy. If you want a good data collection your options are installing a local solar panel and a battery for data collection at night. With this one could forego the battery altogether (which means that the sensor would run basically maintenance-free forever)

Storage for the grid is an issue. Any reduction in storage requirements is welcome. I wonder if it would be possible to design a system that functions as a solar panel by day and uses this effect by night

May 07, 2019
I dunno, 64 nanowatts/m^2 is pretty low, but this is proof of concept and they say there is lots of room for improvement. Might still need a battery or super capacitor for some applications to deal with twilight, etc. if the device had to be active all the time. I can certainly see an environmental sensor that accumulates charge until it has enough, takes its measurement, transmits it and goes back to charging. I wonder what the theoretical limit is and how close a practical device can come? I'd love to see this become practical.

I had the same thought as you about panels that collected solar energy by day and radiation to space at night. That would be fantastic. Going to space again, I wonder if one could make a two sided cell that was solar energy capturing on one side and captured energy from radiation to the cold of space on the other. Two modes simultaneously. The sunward side would give you a lot of thermal energy to work with.

May 09, 2019
Photonic temperature outflow in this vacuum

A current generator facing space
which has a frigid temperature
where this outflow of energy
is harvested using optoelectronic physics of solar panels
the vacuum is this thermodynamics resource
negative illumination allows electrical energy to be harvested as heat leaves this surface.
pointing this device toward space
whose temperature approaches absolute zero
is able to find a temperature difference to generate an electric current

A heat engine acts by transferring energy from a warm region to a cool region of space

Are we hearing this correctly?
this device
this negative illumination allows electrical energy to be harvested as heat leaves this surface
effectively this vacuum is a heat sink where this heat is flowing from this device to this vacuum
or
is it more subtle than that
are these impacting photons on this device transferring energy to this device
where this device is transferring this heat to the frigid vacuum of space?

May 09, 2019
I dont get it - is this harvesting waste heat from earth or ambient energy from space? This doesnt have anything to do with zero point energy does it? Of course not.

May 09, 2019
It's harvesting heat from photons
TheGhostofOtto> I dont get it - is this harvesting waste heat from earth or ambient energy from space? This doesnt have anything to do with zero point energy does it? Of course not.

It's just not clear how it's doing it
Maybe, its patented
if it is, its no longer protected as all details are to be kept secret
Well, it's no longer a secret now

May 10, 2019
Is it possible this latest KickStarter Project would be ideal for performing further tests?

https://www.geeky...05-2019/

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