Correlation between structure, doping and performance of thermoelectric materials

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Virginia Tech


Thermoelectric materials can convert thermal energy into electrical energy and vice-versa. They are widely used in energy harvesters, thermal sensors, and cooling systems. However, the low efficiency and high cost of the known material compositions limit their widespread utilization in electricity generation applications. Therefore, there is a strong interest in identifying new thermoelectric materials with high figure of merit. In response to this need, this dissertation works on the synthesis, structure, doping mechanism, and thermoelectric properties of zinc oxide (ZnO) and lead tellurium (PbTe). The main focus is on ZnO based materials and in improving their performance. The influences of micro- or nano-structures on thermal conductivity, as well as the correlation between the electrical property and synthesis conditions, have been systematically investigated.

ZnO is a likely candidate for thermoelectric applications, because of its good Seebeck coefficient, high stability at high temperature, non-toxicity and abundance. Its main drawbacks are the high thermal conductivity (κ) and low electrical conductivity (σ). To decrease κ, two novel structures—namely, precipitate system and layered-and-correlated grain microstructure—have been proposed and synthesized in ZnO. The mechanisms iii governing the nature of thermal behavior in these structures have been explored and quantified. Due to strong phonon scattering, the nano-precipitates can reduce the thermal conductivity of ZnO by 73%. The ZnO with layered-and-correlated grains can further reduce κ by about 52%, which compares favorably with the dense ZnO with nanoprecipitates. The figure of merit of this ZnO based structure was 0.14×10⁻³ K⁻¹ at 573 K. In order to understand the electrical behavior in nanostructured ZnO, the impact of Al doping and chemical defects in ZnO under different synthesis conditions were studied. Under varying sintering temperatures, atmospheres and initial physical conditions, ZnO exhibited very distinct σ. High temperature, lack of oxygen, vacuum condition, and chemically synthesized powder can increase the carrier concentration and σ of ZnO. A promising alloy system, PbTe-PbS, undergoes natural phase separation by nucleation and growth, and spinodal decomposition depending on the thermal treatment. The correlation between the thermal treatment, structure, and the thermoelectric properties of Pb0.9S0.1Te has been studied. The nano-precipitates were incorporated in the annealed alloy resulting in a 40% decrease in κ. The PbS precipitation was shown to enhance the carrier concentration and improves the Seebeck coefficient. These concomitant effects result in a maximum ZT of 0.76 at 573 K.

Throughout the thesis, the emphasis was on understanding the impact of the microstructures on thermal conductivity and the effect of the synthesis condition on thermal and electrical properties. The process and control variables identified in this study provide practical ways to optimize the figure of merit of ZnO and PbTe materials for thermoelectric applications.



thermoelectric, nanostructure, thermal conductivity, doping, electrical properties