It is possible that future applications will include enabling new kinds of ultra-small electronic devices, perhaps with sensors or treatment devices that could be injected into the body, or “environmental sensors” that could be scattered like dust into the air, he said. In theory, such devices could maintain their power indefinitely until used, unlike batteries whose charges ebb away gradually as they sit unused.
“It could replace current battery technology,” Strano said. “Batteries have a finite limitation. They often fail when you want a lot of energy quickly. Our kind of batteries--if they ever become realizable--will have a niche where you need a lot of energy very quickly: in cars, in rappelling equipment used in fire-fighting, and in some communication equipment where you want a burst of energy. These would all benefit from a thermopower wave.”
Although the individual nanowires are tiny, it is possible they could be made in large arrays to supply significant amounts of power for larger devices, Strano said.
It is also conceivable that the technology could replace fossil fuel-burning generators to produce electricity, resulting in a “much lower carbon footprint,” he said. “It’s not a fuel, but it is a way of extracting usable energy. It’s the products of regular combustion processes that gets us into trouble. In a coal-fired plant, you have to burn the fuel. With these thermowaves, you don’t have to use combustion that releases CO2.”
In fact, “the nanotube survives the harsh reaction and is not changed at all,” he said. “You can launch multiple waves over and over again.”
The findings were published in the journal Nature Materials. Strano, senior author, collaborated with lead author, Wonjoon Choi, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering. The National Science Foundation funded the work.