How to build a better fridge? Try a zap with your microwave

If you think the days of garage-built or cheap, jerry-rigged experiments leading to potentially world-changing innovations are over, think again.

Engineering researchers at New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have proved otherwise by finding a quick and inexpensive way to make nanomaterials that could be used in super-efficient, solid-state refrigerators and cooling systems with no moving parts. How? By cooking those materials in a $40 microwave oven.

The key to such advanced refrigeration technologies are thermoelectric materials, which can convert electricity into a range of temperatures, from hot to cold. Those types of refrigerators do exist today, but they’re small, inefficient and depend on costly materials that are hard to produce in bulk.

Researchers at Rensselaer, though, have found they can “cook” those materials relatively quickly and cheaply in an ordinary microwave.

By mixing the right nanomaterials with the tiniest pinch of sulfur and microwaving them for a few minutes, engineers have been able to produce thermoelectric materials that are better than those available today. Their “kitchen-nuked” materials are also faster, easier and cheaper to make than any currently on the market.

“This is not a one-off discovery,” said Rensselaer professor Ganpati Ramanath, who conducted the experiments with colleagues Theodorian Borca-Tasciuc and Richard W. Siegel. “Our findings truly hold the potential to transform the technology landscape of refrigeration and make a real impact on our lives.”

Borca-Tasciuc added, “Our ability to scalably and inexpensively produce (these materials) paves the way to the fabrication of high-efficiency cooling devices, as well as solid-state thermoelectric devices for harvesting waste heat or solar heat into electricity.”

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