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Taking some heat ... and turning it into electricity

Harnessing heat for useful purposes isn't really anything new. Um, that's kind of what steam does and has been doing for more than 100 years.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor on

Harnessing heat for useful purposes isn't really anything new. Um, that's kind of what steam does and has been doing for more than 100 years. I actually wrote a few months ago about a data center in Helsinki that is using these principles to keep the city heated during the winter months.

But now, there some greentech companies exploring the idea of how to use the heat created by your computers and mobile gadgets and feed it back into keeping them running for longer.

There's a great feature story in the Natural Resources Defense Council's journal, OnEarth, about this very topic. The technology concept in question is called thermoelectrics. The idea is pretty simple: Capture the waste heat created by various technologies and feed it back into the battery or other power sources. The article points out that thermoelectrics are what have been keeping various NASA satellites and space probes sending signals back to earth for decades.

Now, imagine if your laptop could feed its own battery with the heat it creates. Pretty compelling, huh?

One of the start-ups that I've been meaning to interview for some time, Alphabet Energy, is engaged in this idea. It's goal is to create chips that you would add to anything from appliances to an automobile to help harvest the waste heat and make sure its not wasted. The technology was born out of the founder's work at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Alphabet Energy just snagged an additional $1 million in funding in early May from Claremont Creek Ventures (CCV) and the CalCEF Clean Energy Angel Fund.

Nextreme Thermal Solutions and Amerigon are two other companies trying to take the thermoelectrics idea mainstream. Another startup that was exploring this area, High Merit Thermoelectrics, wasn't as lucky and has shut its doors for now.

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