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Improved Thermoelectric Devices

Phononic Devices
ARPA-E Award: 
Raleigh, NC
Project Term: 
12/11/2009 to 03/30/2012
Project Status: 
Technical Categories: 
Graphic of Phononic's technology
Critical Need: 

Wasted heat is an unavoidable by-product of any power produced by electrical devices or machines. While a little heat from a computer or cell phone does not seem like a big deal, the cumulative loss of heat from all power generated in the U.S. each year is over 50%. In some cases, air conditioners are even used to expel waste heat, which creates more wasted energy and can cause temperatures to rise in dense urban environments. Waste heat capture, which turns excess thermal energy into electricity, has the potential to provide consumers with billions of dollars in energy savings each year.

Project Innovation + Advantages: 

Phononic Devices is working to recapture waste heat and convert it into usable electric power. To do this, the company is using thermoelectric devices, which are made from advanced semiconductor materials that convert heat into electricity or actively remove heat for refrigeration and cooling purposes. Thermoelectric devices resemble computer chips, and they manage heat by manipulating the direction of electrons at the nanoscale. These devices aren't new, but they are currently too inefficient and expensive for widespread use. Phononic Devices is using a high-performance, cost-effective thermoelectric design that will improve the device's efficiency and enable electronics manufacturers to more easily integrate them into their products.

Potential Impact: 

If successful, Phononic Devices would improve the efficiency of thermoelectric devices by 30% and make it easier to incorporate energy-saving thermoelectric devices into mainstream cooling, refrigeration, and waste-heat recovery equipment.


Turning waste heat into usable electric power would reduce energy consumption and U.S. dependence on foreign oil.


Efficient, low-grade, waste-heat recovery can eliminate the use of over 400,000 tons of coal per year.


Thermoelectrics have the potential to create a $125 billion industry and save consumers and businesses from wasting their hard-earned money on paying for waste heat.

Innovation Update: 

(As of August 2016)
Under its ARPA-E award, Phononic Devices developed a thermoelectric waste heat converter, the success of which enabled significant follow-on funding. The company has now received $75 million in additional funds and has grown to over 100 employees. Phononic has made significant technical advances in the engineering and manufacturing of its thermoelectric devices, which it leverages in its advanced heat transport systems to deliver a diverse range of heating and cooling products. Phononic is also addressing the market of hot spot cooling for high-power fiber optics, taking advantage of the high power densities and sub-millimeter size. The company has also entered into the wine and hospital refrigeration markets, which benefit from advantages that only thermoelectric cooling systems can provide such as low noise, no vibration, and exact and uniform temperature control.

Phononic was funded by ARPA-E to create compact and efficient thermoelectric waste heat converters and coolers based on lead chalcogenide materials using molecular beam epitaxy (MBE). Most existing commercial thermoelectric devices are based on technologies and innovations made as early as the 1950s. Over the last twenty years, there has been an enormous improvement in ability to control uniformity of synthesis and microstructure of thermoelectric materials, providing as much as a factor of two increase in thermoelectric performance. The semiconductor industry has developed and reduced the cost of MBE to enable products such as LEDs and solar cell coatings, which allows for micron scale control of the chemistry of a thermoelectric module. By combining these advances, Phononic developed a superior thermoelectric device that demonstrated the ability to layer materials up to 20 microns thick with performance comparable to the best of other thin film approaches. The company also demonstrated and achieved low electrical contact resistance in the device.

For a detailed assessment of the Phononic team's project and impact, please click here.

ARPA-E Program Director: 
Dr. Eric Toone
Project Contact: 
Dr. Anthony Atti
University of Oklahoma
Release Date: