Silica aerogels have been shown to be attractive for use as thermal insulation materials for thermoelectric devices. It is desirable to thermally insulate the legs of thermoelectric devices to suppress lateral heat leaks that degrade thermal efficiency. Aerogels offer not only high thermal insulation effectiveness, but also a combination of other properties that are especially advantageous in thermoelectric device applications.

Aerogels are synthesized by means of solgel chemistry, which is ideal for casting insulation into place. As the scale of the devices to be insulated decreases, the castability from liquid solutions becomes increasingly advantageous: By virtue of castability, aerogel insulation can be made to encapsulate devices having any size from macroscopic down to nanoscopic and possibly having complex, three-dimensional shapes. Castable aerogels can permeate voids having characteristic dimensions as small as nanometers. Hence, practically all the void space surrounding the legs of thermoelectric devices could be filled with aerogel insulation, making the insulation highly effective. Because aerogels have the lowest densities of any known solid materials, they would add very little mass to the encapsulated devices.

The thermal-conductivity values of aerogels are among the lowest reported for any material, even after taking account of the contributions of convection and radiation (in addition to true thermal conduction) to overall effective thermal conductivities. Even in ambient air, the contribution of convection to effective overall thermal conductivity of an aerogel is extremely low because of the highly tortuous nature of the flow paths through the porous aerogel structure. For applications that involve operating temperatures high enough to give rise to significant amounts of infrared radiation, opacifiers could be added to aerogels to reduce the radiative contributions to overall effective thermal conductivities. One example of an opacifier is carbon black, which absorbs infrared radiation. Another example of an opacifier is micron-sized metal flakes, which reflect infrared radiation.

Encapsulation in cast aerogel insulation also can help prolong the operational lifetimes of thermoelectric devices that must operate in vacuum and that contain SiGe or such advanced skutterudite thermoelectric materials as CoSb3 and CeFe3.5Co0.5Sb12. The primary cause of deterioration of most thermoelectric materials is thermal decomposition or sublimation (e.g., sublimation of Sb from CoSb3) at typical high operating temperatures. Aerogel present near the surface of CoSb3 can impede the outward transportof Sb vapor by establishing a highly localized, equilibrium Sb-vapor atmosphere at the surface of the CoSb3.

This work was done by Jeffrey Sakamoto, Jean-Pierre Fleurial, Jeffrey Snyder, Steven Jones, and Thierry Caillat of Caltech for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. For further information, access the Technical Support Package (TSP) free on-line at under the Materials category.

In accordance with Public Law 96-517, the contractor has elected to retain title to this invention. Inquiries concerning rights for its commercial use should be addressed to:

Innovative Technology Assets Management JPL
Mail Stop 202-233
4800 Oak Grove Drive
Pasadena, CA 91109-8099
(818) 354-2240
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Refer to NPO-40630, volume and number of this NASA Tech Briefs issue, and the page number.

This Brief includes a Technical Support Package (TSP).
Aerogels for Thermal Insulation of Thermoelectric Devices

(reference NPO-40630) is currently available for download from the TSP library.

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