Melosh’s group replaced the cesium cathode with a wafer of semiconducting material that can make use of not only heat but also light. When light strikes the cathode, it transmits its energy to electrons in the material in a way that’s similar to what happens in a solar cell. This type of energy transfer doesn’t happen in the metals used to make these cathodes in the past, but it’s typical of semiconductor materials. It doesn’t take quite as much heat for these “preëxcited” electrons to jump to the anode, so this new device can operate at lower temperatures than conventional thermionic converters, but at higher temperatures than a solar cell.
The Stanford researchers call this new mechanism PETE, for photon-enhanced thermionic emission. “The light helps lift the energy level of the electrons so that they will flow,” says Gang Chen, professor of power engineering at MIT. “It’s a long way to a practical device, but this work shows that it’s possible,” he says.
The Stanford group’s prototype, described this month in the journal Nature Materials, uses gallium nitride as the semiconductor. It converts just about 25 percent of the energy in light into electricity at 200 °C, and the efficiency rises with the temperature. Stuart Licht, professor of chemistry at George Washington University, says the process would have an “advantage over solar cells” because it makes use of heat in addition to light. But he cautions: “Additional work will be needed to translate this into a practical, more efficient device.”
The Stanford group is now working to do just that. The researchers are testing devices made from materials that are better suited to solar energy conversion, including silicon and gallium arsenide. They’re also developing ways of treating these materials so that the device will work more efficiently in a temperature range of 400 °C to 600 °C; solar concentrators would be used to generate such high temperatures from sunlight.
Even at high temperatures, the photon-enhanced thermionic converter will generate more heat than it can use; Melosh says this heat could be coupled to a steam engine for a solar-energy-to-electricity conversion efficiency exceeding 50 percent. These systems are likely to be too complex and expensive for small-scale rooftop installations. But they could be economical for large solar-farm installations, says Melosh, a professor of materials science and engineering. He hopes to have a device ready for commercial development in three years.