Electron ‘cloaking’ hints at improved thermoelectric devices

Breakthrough research on materials that are “invisible” to electrons could lead better thermoelectric devices that can generate electricity from temperature differences.

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) began with a look at recent advances in visual “cloaking,” which can make light beams bend around an object and then return to their original paths … leading it to look like there’s nothing in between. Instead of working with light, however, they focused their attention on electrons. (An electric current is a flow of electrons through a conducting material.)

The researchers’ computer models show that it’s possible to create nanoparticles with a core of one material and a shell of another. Electrons can then be made to pass through the material without any apparent change in their trajectories: the path of each electron is bent one way and then back to the original path as it passes through.

With computer models confirming the concept works in theory, the research team now hopes to build a device that can demonstrate real electron cloaking in action.

“We’re really just at the beginning,” said mechanical engineering professor Gang Chen. “We’re not sure how far this is going to go yet, but there is some potential” for significant applications.

The concept could lead to improved thermoelectric devices, which currently require a hard-to-find combination of material characteristics: high electrical conductivity but low thermal conductivity. It could also help with the development of new kinds of switches for electronic devices.

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