Calming Atoms
Science & Technology

Cold Neutrons Uncover “Floppy” Atomic Dynamics That Help Turn Heat Into Electricity

Evolution of atomic lattice oscillation waves upon heating the tin sulfide crystal, as measured with neutron scattering. Credit score: Tyson Lanigan-Atkins, Delaire group, Duke College

‘Cold neutrons’ uncover atomic dynamics that give thermoelectric supplies low-heat conductivity.

Supplies scientists at Duke College have uncovered an atomic mechanism that makes sure thermoelectric supplies extremely environment friendly close to high-temperature part transitions. The data will assist fill vital data gaps within the computational modeling of such supplies, doubtlessly permitting researchers to find new and higher choices for applied sciences that depend on remodeling warmth into electrical energy.

The outcomes had been printed on-line earlier this month within the journal Nature Communications.

Thermoelectric supplies convert warmth into electrical energy when electrons migrate from the new facet of the fabric to the chilly facet. As a result of offering a temperature distinction between its two sides is required, researchers are interested by attempting to make use of these supplies to generate electrical energy from the warmth of a automotive’s tailpipe or recovering vitality misplaced as warmth in energy vegetation.

Over the previous couple of years, new information had been set for thermoelectric effectivity with an rising materials referred to as tin selenide and its sister compound, tin sulfide. The sulfide model just isn’t fairly pretty much as good a thermoelectric but, however it’s being optimized additional as a result of it’s cheaper to provide and extra environmentally pleasant.

Whereas scientists know that each of those compounds are wonderful thermoelectric supplies, they don’t precisely know why. Within the new examine, Olivier Delaire, affiliate professor of mechanical engineering and supplies science at Duke, and two of his graduate college students, Tyson Lanigan-Atkins and Shan Yang, tried to fill in a little bit of that data hole.

“We wished to attempt to perceive why these supplies have such low thermal conductivity, which helps allow the sturdy thermoelectric properties they’re recognized for,” stated Delaire. “Utilizing a strong mixture of neutron scattering measurements and pc simulations, we found that it’s associated to the fabric’s atomic vibrations at excessive temperature, which no person had seen earlier than.”

Low thermal conductivity is a essential ingredient of any good thermoelectric materials. As a result of electrical energy era requires a warmth differential between its two sides, it is sensible that supplies that cease warmth from spreading throughout them would carry out properly.

To get a view of tin sulfide’s atomic vibrations in motion, Delaire and Lanigan-Atkins took samples to the Excessive Flux Isotope Reactor at Oak Ridge Nationwide Laboratory. By ricocheting neutrons off of the tin sulfide’s atoms and detecting the place they find yourself after, the researchers might decide the place the atoms had been and the way they had been collectively vibrating within the crystal’s lattice.

The services at ORNL had been notably well-suited for the duty. As a result of the atomic vibrations of tin sulfide are comparatively sluggish, the researchers want low-energy “chilly” neutrons which might be delicate sufficient to see them. And ORNL has a few of the finest cold-neutron devices on this planet.

“We discovered that the tin sulfide successfully has sure modes of vibration which might be very ‘floppy,’” stated Delaire. “And that its properties are linked with inherent instability in its crystal lattice.”

At decrease temperatures, tin sulfide is a layered materials with distorted grids of tin and sulfide mendacity on high of one other, corrugated like an accordion. However at temperatures close to its part transition level of 980 levels Fahrenheit—which is the place thermoelectric mills typically function—that distorted surroundings begins to breaks down. The 2 layers, as if by magic, turn into undistorted once more and extra symmetric, which is the place the “floppiness” comes into play.

As a result of the fabric is sloshing between the 2 structural preparations at excessive temperature, its atoms now not vibrate collectively like a well-tuned guitar string and as a substitute turn into anharmonically damped. To know this higher, consider a automotive with horrible shocks as having a harmonic vibration — it’ll maintain bouncing lengthy after going over the slightest bump. However correct shocks will dampen that vibration, making it anharmonic and stopping it from oscillating for a very long time.

“Heat waves journey by atomic vibrations in a cloth,” stated Delaire. “So when the atomic vibrations in tin sulfide turn into floppy, they don’t transmit vibrations in a short time they usually additionally don’t vibrate for very lengthy. That’s the basis reason for its potential to cease warmth from touring inside it.”

With these leads to hand, Delaire and Yang then sought to verify and perceive them computationally. Utilizing supercomputers at Lawrence Berkeley Nationwide Laboratory, Yang was capable of reproduce the identical anharmonic results at excessive temperatures. Moreover confirming what they noticed within the experiments, Delaire says these up to date fashions will enable researchers to raised seek for new thermoelectric supplies to make use of in tomorrow’s applied sciences.

“Researchers within the area haven’t been accounting for sturdy temperature dependences on warmth propagation velocities, and this modeling reveals simply how necessary that variable might be,” stated Delaire. “Adopting these outcomes and different theoretical advances will make it simpler for supplies scientists to foretell different good thermoelectric supplies.”

This analysis was supported by the Division of Vitality (DE-SC0019299, DE-SC0016166).

CITATION: “Prolonged anharmonic collapse of phonon dispersions in SnS and SnSe” by T. Lanigan-Atkins, S. Yang, J. L. Niedziela, D. Bansal, A. F. Might, A. A. Puretzky, J. Y. Y. Lin, D. M. Pajerowski, T. Hong, S. Chi, G. Ehlers and O. Delaire, 4 September 2020, Nature Communications.
DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-18121-4

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