The development of more efficient thermoelectric couple technology capable of operating with high-grade heat sources up to 1,275 K is key to improving the performance of radioisotope theroelectric generators. Lanthanum telluride La3–xTe4 and 14-1-11 Zintls (Yb14MnSb11) have been identified as very promising materials.
The fabrication of advanced high-temperature thermoelectric couples requires the joining of several dissimilar materials, typically including a number of diffusion bonding and brazing steps, to achieve a device capable of operating at elevated temperatures across a large temperature differential (up to 900 K). A thermoelectric couple typically comprises a heat collector/exchanger, metallic interconnects on both hot and cold sides, n-type and p-type conductivity thermoelectric elements, and cold-side hardware to connect to the cold-side heat rejection and provide electrical connections.
Differences in the physical, mechanical, and chemical properties of the materials that make up the thermoelectric couple, especially differences in the coefficients of thermal expansion (CTE), result in undesirable interfacial stresses that can lead to mechanical failure of the device. The problem is further complicated by the fact that the thermoelectric materials under consideration have large CTE values, are brittle, and cracks can propagate through them with minimal resistance.
The inherent challenge of bonding brittle, high-thermal-expansion thermoelectric materials to a hot shoe material that is thick enough to carry the requisite electrical current was overcome. A critical advantage over prior art is that this device was constructed using all diffusion bonds and a minimum number of assembly steps.
The fabrication process and the materials used are described in the following steps:
- Applying a thin refractory metal foil to both sides of lanthanum telluride. To fabricate the n-type leg of the advanced thermoelectric couple, the pre-synthesized lanthanum telluride coupon was diffusion bonded to the metal foil using a thin adhesion layer.
- Repeating a similar process for the 14-1-11 Zintl p-type leg of the advanced thermoelectric couple.
- Bonding thick CTE-matched metal plates on the metallized lanthanum telluride and Yb14MnSb11 to form the hot and cold sides of the thermoelectric couple.
The calculated conversion efficiency of such an advanced couple would be about 10.5 percent, about 35 percent better than heritage radioisotope thermoelectric technology that relies on SiGe alloys. In addition, unlike Si-Ge alloys, these materials can be combined with many other thermoelectric materials optimized for operation at lower temperatures to achieve conversion efficiency in excess of 15 percent (a factor of 2 increase over heritage technology).
This work was done by Vilupanur A. Ravi, Billy Chun-Yip Li, and Jean-Pierre Fleurial of Caltech and Kurt Star of UCLA for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. For more information, download the Technical Support Package (free white paper) at www.techbriefs.com/tsp under the Materials category.
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