New Thermal Computers Could Turn Heat into Energy

We know that heat and electronics generally aren’t good bedfellows. But a team of engineers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is creating new thermal computers that not only thrive in extreme heat, but are powered by it.

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Sidy Ndao, right, and Mahmoud Elzouka have created a thermal-mechanical device that can power computers in extreme-heat situations. Photo by Karl Vogel of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Sidy Ndao, assistant professor of mechanical and materials engineering, graduate student Mahmoud Elzouka and their team developed a thermal-mechanical device that worked in temperatures approaching 630 degrees Fahrenheit. By comparison, the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth was 134 degrees Fahrenheit in Death Valley, California in 1913.

With some tweaks, Ndao said he expects the device will eventually work in temperatures of up to 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit. (Woah.) It could be used to power computers in extreme heat situations. So what practical applications would these super-durable computers have?

“It could be used in space exploration, for exploring the core of the earth, for oil drilling, (for) many applications,” Ndao said to the university. “It could allow us to do calculations and process data in real time in places where we haven’t been able to do so before.”

Why power with heat?

The United States wastes tons of energy in the form of heat, and scientists have been working for years to find ways to harness this “free energy.” While recycling heat is common in Europe—Denmark gets half of its electricity from recycled heat energy—the U.S. gets only 12 percent of its electricity this way, according to Popular Science.

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This thermal-mechanical device runs on heat and can power computers in extremely hot environments. Photo by Karl Vogel of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“If you think about it, whatever you do with electricity you should (also) be able to do with heat,” Ndao said. “They are both energy carriers.”

These thermal computers could be part of a global turn toward renewable energy use. Harnessing and using the energy the U.S. wastes now could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 17 percent, Popular Science reported.

“It is said now that nearly 60 percent of the energy produced for consumption in the United States is wasted in heat,” Ndao said. “If you could harness this heat and use it for energy in these devices, you could obviously cut down on waste and the cost of energy.”

The team’s next step is to improve the device and build a thermal computer to go along with it.

“We want to to create the world’s first thermal computer,” he said. “Hopefully one day, it will be used to unlock the mysteries of outer space, explore and harvest our own planet’s deep-beneath-the-surface geology, and harness waste heat for more efficient-energy utilization.”

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Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Reach her via email at [email protected] or on Twitter @katecmoritz.