Several UCSB professors are participating in a Multi-University Research Initiative to develop new technologies to improve energy efficiency and assess the feasibility of producing organic thermoelectric devices.

The Air Force Office of Scientific Research is financing the program for three years and may fund for an additional two years for a potential total of $7.5 million. Director of the Materials Research Laboratory Craig Hawker, chemistry professor Guillermo Bazan and materials professor Michael Chabinyc comprise the university’s participating team.

According to Bazan, the initiative combines the university members’ work on an individual aspect of the research.

“What excites me about this is that we’re very much ahead of the curve,” Bazan said. “I think what’s relevant is that this program is a multi-university effort in trying to understand how you can move charges and heat in preferably opposite directions.”

The UCSB MURI members are developing the organic materials required for the devices, which are developed by the Berkeley team, according to Bazan.

Thermoelectric devices harvest heat and convert it into electricity. The tools are used for various purposes from cooling car seats to powering distant satellites.

According to electrical and computer engineering professor John Bowers, similar technology has existed for over thirty years such as in solar panels and compact refrigeration mechanisms.

“The problem has been, historically, that thermoelectrics are not very efficient,” says Bowers. “The promise [of organic thermoelectrics] is for recovering waste power. [Existing thermoelectrics] are good, but they’re limited because of their deficiencies.”

Inorganic thermoelectrics require rigid components and lack versatility. According to Hawker, organic substances may provide the key to make them flexible and lightweight.

“You can print organics just like you print newspapers, and that’s very cheap,” Hawker said. “That is the promise of organic [materials]. Thermoelectrics, we believe, share that promise and [will] potentially be game-changing.”

Bazan said the project could create new technological fields given that this initiative is the first of its kind.

“It is a tough problem, but I think this is exactly the right way to tackle this issue,” says Bazan. “Nobody has really tackled this problem in organic systems head-on.”

Particularly, Bowers said organic thermoelectrics could vastly improve energy efficiency in vehicles.

“Most of the energy in a car is wasted,” Bowers said. “With the use of thermoelectrics, excess heat produced by a particularly hot part of a car, such as the engine, could be harvested and used to power some other electrical component of the car, improving the vehicle’s overall energy efficiency.”