Heat is a Terrible Thing to Waste

World-wide energy consumption is expected to increase by 40% over the next 20 years, and it is not exactly clear where all this additional energy is going to come from. Equally as puzzling is the surprising fact that most of the energy we produce is lost to the atmosphere as waste heat.

So far, there have been very few compelling solutions for capturing this waste heat and turning it back into useable energy.

Commercially-available energy harvesting solutions, such as organic rankine cycle (ORC) systems and microturbines, have relied on pumps, valves, fans and all manner of componentry. These mechanical approaches are generally limited to operating at relatively low temperatures (about the temperature of a simple kitchen oven), where there is a disappointingly low density of energy available to harvest, and have all the downsides associated with high maintenance costs, bulky size (some as large as tractor trailers), and long time periods to recoup investment.

Scientists and entrepreneurs, alike, have dreamt of the day when solid-state semiconductor chips, with no moving parts and having the thinness of a potato chip, would be capable of harvesting waste heat at a scalability which is not possible with ORC or turbines. Unfortunately, thermoelectric chips, which are the energy harvesting devices that have been developed over the last several decades to fulfill this dream, have not provided the level of conversion efficiency (typically limited to a few percent) needed to be a cost-effective way to solve a world-wide energy conundrum.

Start-up company MTPV, based in Austin, Texas, has developed a completely non-thermoelectric approach to solid-state energy capture. MTPV’s devices utilize previously unexploited principles of physics to convert heat to electricity with a theoretical maximum conversion efficiency which is 400% greater than the theoretical maximum for thermoelectric devices. In addition, MTPV chips are uniquely optimized to withstand high temperature industrial environments (such as in chemical plants, oil/gas flares, metal smelters, and glass foundries) which would render other energy harvesting systems useless. It is expected that MTPV’s products will ultimately produce 10 kilowatts to 100 kilowatts per square meter. To put this into perspective, this is 50 to 500 times the energy capture density of conventional solar modules at high noon at the equator. The key to MTPV’s remarkable device performance is rooted in the precise control of thin film materials which are grown, deposited, and etched away by semiconductor processing equipment, to create the critical microstructures inside of MTPV’s chips.

As an investor for Applied Ventures, the venture investment arm of semiconductor equipment maker Applied Materials, I found the MTPV story to be extremely compelling. MTPV sits at the confluence of semiconductors and energy (representing two of the largest markets in the world) and utilizes the very best technologies that the semiconductor equipment industry can offer to create its ground-breaking products.

With Applied’s recent investment in MTPV, we are pleased to have the opportunity to help accelerate the development of a potentially important solution for our ever-expanding, energy-conscious world.

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