By Zuerrnnovahh-Starr Livingstone
September 19, 2002
I spent today following up on a promise I made to my brother-in-law, John.
I finally went through my old Scientific American magazines and found the
article on thermophotovoltaics. It was in the September 1998 issue pp. 90-95,
written by T.J. Coutts and M.C. Fitzgerald.
The Consumer Electronics (CE) stove top fan you have appears to be kicking
out more juice at lower temperatures than the cells cited in the article.
The cells use heat instead of light. The infrared heat has to be at specific
frequencies and they have to mated to reflectors and radiators of exotic materials
in order to operate efficiently. Your stove top fan for the wood stove at
the cabin has a bi-metal strip which cuts contact with the stove surface when
the temperature gets too high. The cells in the article operate above 1832
degrees F. Yours appears to be doing the same job at 500 degrees F.
The technology has come out of the same research that produced photocells.
Thermophotovoltaics as an idea came about in 1956 by Pierre R. Aigrain in
Paris. Money towards development of the technology was fronted by DARPA and
a number of researchers have advanced the cells over the past 40 years on
military and commercial applications.
"Thermophotovoltaics is about to reach the commercial marketplace.
A company in the Pacific Northwest plans to market a thermophotovoltaic generator
to run electrical equipment on sailboats Other applications under development
include small power units that would supply electricity in remote areas or
for roving military troops."
In the article, a picture of a sailboat generator/cabin heater is shown
with a high-tech stainless steel 'cone' atop a propane burner.
"JX Crystals in Issaquah Washington, has created a product-Midnight
Sun-primarily for use on sailboats. The 14 centimeter wide by 43 centimeter
tall cylindrical heater, powered by propane gas, can produce 30 watts of electricity
and is targeted as a means of recharging batteries that run navigation and
other equipment. The unit not only provides electricity but acts as a co-generator,
supplying space heating for the boat cabin. It uses a partially selective
radiator made of magnesium aluminate and has gallium antimonide photovoltaic
cells connected in series.
Although its current $3,000 price tag makes it more expensive than a conventional
diesel generator, Midnight Sun runs silently and is expected to be more reliable,
because it lacks any moving parts.
The product may also prove attractive to owners of recreational vehicles
or wilderness homes, who could take advantage of a substantially less costly
unit than the stainless-steel and brass thermophotovoltaic generator necessary
for the marine environment."
On page 95 there is a picture of an experimental car powered by thermophotovoltaic
cells created by Western Washington University, Seattle. The propane burners
in the back seat area of the car give it a Batmobile appearance.
When I originally read the article four years ago I could see homes in urban
areas, not just cabins, unplugging from the electrical grid and deriving electricity
from the natural gas furnace as well as regular photovoltaics on the roof.
If the thermophotovoltaics could be developed to convert the heat of the sun
into electricity then the goals of the Kyoto Agreement would be reached easily.
If homes are converted to high efficiency appliances and low wattage full
spectrum LED lighting and TVs, then electrical utilities would be shutting
down electrical generators. I felt the future had arrived and high voltage
power lines were a thing of the past. I raveled in the thought of a clean
Then I heard absolutely nothing for years. Were there problems with the
cells? Were they too expensive? Did the military make it Top Secret? Did the
oil companies buy up the patents? Then I saw your stove top fan and I knew
that it was slowly making its way into the future marketplace. Consumer Electronics
is a large multinational company and if they have developed a small product
then other products are probably on the way.
Would not it be great if people generated the current which they needed
to power up only that which needed power at that time? The billions of barrels
of oil which could be saved is mind boggling. Hopefully it is not a pipe-dream
which the greedy ones would make disappear like the 100 miles per gallon carburetor.
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