Researchers have created a diode which harnesses heat as a power source.
Two engineers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have looked at the problem of cooling computer components and turned it upside down. Since the dawn of the computing age, a standard problem to be combated in any computer is overheating. Heat sinks, fans, and thermal paste are attached to components like the CPU and GPU to ensure that they don’t burn up, and anyone who has played around with overclocking knows that the harder you push your components, the hotter they’re going to get. The Nebraska-Lincoln engineers meanwhile, figured that instead of fighting the heat, there could be a way to harness it.
Sidy Ndao, assistant professor of mechanical and materials engineering, said that his research group has developed a ‘thermal diode’, which could one day power computers with the excess heat they produce. “If you think about it, whatever you do with electricity you should (also) be able to do with heat, because they are similar in many ways,” Ndao said. “In principle, they are both energy carriers. If you could control heat, you could use it to do computing and avoid the problem of overheating.”
Ndao and his co-author Mahmoud Elzouka, a graduate student in mechanical and materials engineering, published an article in the March edition of Scientific Reports, detailing their research. In the article, they showcase how their new diode is capable of operating in temperatures of up to 330 degrees Celsius, and could potentially function in extremes of 700 degrees.
“We are basically creating a thermal computer,” Ndao said. “It could be used in space exploration, for exploring the core of the earth, for oil drilling, (for) many applications. It could allow us to do calculations and process data in real time in places where we haven’t been able to do so before.” Beyond that, as much as 60% of the energy consumed by modern electronics are lost in heat, and if new components could use this heat as an energy source, it would go a long way towards limiting the amount of waste energy we use.
The researchers have filed for a patent on the device, and Ndao says the next step is to improve the diode’s efficiency and create an actual computer out of it. “If we can achieve high efficiency, show that we can do computations and run a logic system experimentally, then we can have a proof-of-concept,” Elzouka said. “(That) is when we can think about the future.”
“We want to to create the world’s first thermal computer,” added Ndao. “Hopefully one day, it will be used to unlock the mysteries of outer space, explore and harvest our own planet’s deep-beneath-the-surface geology, and harness waste heat for more efficient-energy utilization.”