Application of semiconductors to thermionic energy converters
- Thermionic energy conversion (TEC) is a direct heat-to-electricity conversion technology with the potential to leapfrog state-of-the-art solid-state conversion in efficiency and power density. In a thermionic energy converter, electrons evaporate from a hot electrode, the cathode, into a vacuum gap and are collected by a cooler electrode, the anode, to generate electric current. In the 1960s-1970s numerous groups reported thermionic converters with power densities above 10 W/cm^2 and conversion efficiencies of ~15%. However most of this work was tied to the US space-nuclear program which ended in 1973, and thermionics research has never fully recovered. As a result two central challenges yet remain in thermionics: (1) High operating temperatures necessary to produce electric current result in difficult materials challenges, and (2) low operating voltages due to losses associated with space charge and high anode work functions. However, new opportunities to tackle these challenges are available as a result of the breathtaking rise of semiconductor fabrication technology. In this work I present a new physical mechanism called photon enhanced thermionic emission (PETE). This concept is an improvement on thermionic emission by using light to boost the average energy of carriers in a hot p-type semiconductor cathode. Additionally, unlike in a photovoltaic cell, the waste heat from recombination losses and sub-bandgap light absorption is utilized to heat the cathode. Thus a PETE cathode can produce efficient electron emission at lower temperatures than a thermionic cathode. I will describe theoretical calculations showing that a PETE device may exceed 40% solar power conversion efficiency, and the conversion efficiency may exceed 50% if a PETE device is used in tandem with a solar thermal backing cycle. I will also describe an experimental demonstration of the PETE effect in an ultra-high vacuum photoemission measurement. In the cathode of an energy converter based on photon-enhanced thermionic emission (PETE) photoexcited carriers may need to encounter the emissive surface numerous times before having sufficient thermal energy to escape into vacuum and therefore should be confined close to the surface. However, in a traditional planar geometry, a thin cathode results in incomplete light absorption. Nanostructuring has the potential to increase light capture and boost emission by decoupling the lengths associated with photon absorption and electron emission. Nanostructures may complicate the properties of the emissive surface; therefore, the effect of nanostructuring on emission efficiency needs to be studied. In this work I describe results from a suite of simulation tools we have developed to capture the full photoemission process: photon absorption, carrier transport within the active material, and electron ballistics following emission. I show that the theoretical efficiency of a negative electron affinity emitter may be increased with nanostructures if light absorption and electron escape ballistics are considered. I then describe measurements of the photoemission efficiency of fabricated nanostructures that were designed based on the results of the simulation suite. I will also present a fundamentally new method to increase the operating voltage of a TEC by lowering the anode work function using the surface photovoltage effect. When a semiconductor surface is illuminated, photo-excited carriers form an internal dipole, or surface photovoltage (SPV), in the band-bending region and begin to flatten the bands near the surface. This SPV is analogous to the photovoltage in a photovoltaic cell and can reduce the effective work function of the material. I will describe an experimental demonstration using the SPV effect to produce a low work function surface. I will also describe a proof-of-concept demonstration of the SPV effect applied to improve the I-V characteristics of thermionic device. This generic physical process extends across materials systems and forms a realistic path to ultra-low work functions in devices to enable efficient thermionic energy conversion.
|Type of resource
|electronic; electronic resource; remote
|1 online resource.
|Riley, Daniel C
|Stanford University, Department of Physics.
|Melosh, Nicholas A
|Melosh, Nicholas A
|Howe, Roger Thomas
|Howe, Roger Thomas
|Statement of responsibility
|Daniel C. Riley.
|Submitted to the Department of Physics.
|Thesis (Ph.D.)--Stanford University, 2015.
- © 2015 by Daniel Christopher Riley
- This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial 3.0 Unported license (CC BY-NC).
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