The rates of cooling afforded by thermoelectric (Peltier) devices can be increased for short times by applying pulses of electric current greater than the currents that yield maximum steady-state cooling. It has been proposed to utilize such momentary enhancements of cooling in applications in which diode lasers and other semiconductor devices are required to operate for times of the order of milliseconds at temperatures too low to be easily obtainable in the steady state. In a typical contemplated application, a semiconductor device would be in contact with the final (coldest) somewhat taller stage of a multistage thermoelectric cooler. Steady current would be applied to the stages to produce steady cooling. Pulsed current would then be applied, enhancing the cooling of the top stage momentarily.

The principles of operation are straightforward: In a thermoelectric device, the cooling occurs only at a junction at one end of the thermoelectric legs, at a rate proportional to the applied current. However, Joule heating occurs throughout the device at a rate proportional to the current squared. Hence, in the steady state, the steady temperature difference that the device can sustain increases with current only to the point beyond which the Joule heating dominates. If a pulse of current greater than the optimum current (the current for maximum steady cooling) is applied, then the junction becomes momentarily cooled below its lowest steady temperature until thermal conduction brings the resulting pulse of Joule heat to the junction and thereby heats the junction above its lowest steady temperature.

A Pulse of Current greater than the optimum steady current was applied to a thermoelectric device, giving rise to transient enhancement of cooling followed by transient heating followed by gradual decay toward the steady state.
A theoretical and experimental study of such transient thermoelectric cooling followed by transient Joule heating in response to current pulses has been performed. The figure presents results from one of the experiments. The study established the essential parameters that characterize the pulse cooling effect, including the minimum temperature achieved, the maximum temperature overshoot, the time to reach minimum temperature, the time while cooled, and the time between pulses. It was found that at large pulse amplitude, the amount of pulse supercooling is about a fourth of the maximum steady-state temperature difference. For the particular thermoelectric device used in one set of the experiments, the practical optimum pulse amplitude was found to be about 3 times the optimum steady-state current. In a further experiment, a pulse cooler was integrated into a small commercial thermoelectric threestage cooler and found to provide several degrees of additional cooling for a time long enough to operate a semiconductor laser in a gas sensor.

This work was done by G. Jeffrey Snyder, Jean-Pierre Fleurial, and Thierry Caillat of Caltech, and Gang Chen and Rong Gui Yang of MIT for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. For further information, access the Technical Support Package (TSP) free online at under the Physical Sciences category. NPO-3055