With a thermoelectric converter heat can be directly converted into electricity.

The collective term "thermoelectricity" summarizes various effects all of which were discovered in Europe starting about 200 years ago. Today, industrial and academic institutions in almost every European country are dealing with thermoelectricity-related issues.

In 1822 the German-Baltic physicist and physician Thomas Johann Seebeck discovered the effect which was named after him [1]. However, it was the Danish physicist and chemist Hans Christian Ørsted who called it a “thermoelectric effect” for the first time [2]. 12 years later the French watchmaker, Jean Charles Athanase Peltier, observed the reverse process [3]. But just as Seebeck Peltier misinterpreted his results and it was not until 1838 that another German-Baltic physicist Heinrich Friedrich Emil Lenz realized the true nature of the Peltier effect and proved it to be an autonomous phenomenon [4]. In 1854 the British mathematical physicist and engineer William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin, was able to relate both effects via a thermodynamic approach based on which he proposed and eventually observed a third thermoelectric effect, now known as the Thomson effect [5]. Systematic studies on thermoelectricity, however, were not further pursued until around 1885. Between 1909 and 1911 the German physicist and mathematician Edmund Altenkirch succeeded in calculating the potential efficiency of thermoelectric generators and the performance of Peltier coolers [6] [7]. Using his constant property model he already back then identified the parameters that make a good thermoelectric material: large Seebeck coefficient, high electrical conductivity (to minimize Joule heating due to electrical resistance) and low thermal conductivity (to minimize heat loss).

Unfortunately, materials available at that time resulted only in very low conversion efficiencies rendering commercialization of thermoelectricity unfeasible. With the advent of the semiconductor technology in the mid-20th century also thermoelectricity saw a boost. The Russian physicist Abram Fjodorowitsch Ioffe promoted the use of semiconductors and semiconductor physics to analyze and optimize the performance of thermoelectric materials since the early 1930s. In 1949 Ioffe developed the concept of the Figure of Merit, ZT, describing the thermoelectric quality of a material which he presented in 1957 [8]. He was one of the first to acknowledge the importance of alloying to reduce the thermal conductivity.

Ioffe’s research provided the basis for future thermoelectric power engineering and the commercial application of PbTe modules. In Britain the physicist Hiroshi Julian Goldsmid together with his colleague R.W. Douglas in 1954 demonstrated that cooling from ambient temperature to below 0 °C was feasible. With the usage of Bi2Te3-based materials he kicked off the development of a stable thermoelectric industry in the West. In Germany it was Ulrich Birkholz who in 1958 set standards by identifying the most suitable n- and p-type solid solution alloys of Bi2Te3 with Sb2Te3 and Bi2Se3 [9].

The emergence of innovative synthesis and analysis methods together with the need of energy conservation resulted in a revival of thermoelectric research activities. New nanostructuring techniques could be applied for the production of novel material classes with improved thermoelectric properties. Since the mid-90s thermoelectric research has significantly increased in almost every European country. The focus is especially on high-temperature thermoelectrics and environmental-friendly and inexpensive materials.

Increasing thermoelectric research activities since the mid-1990s have also led to the foundation of the European Thermoelectric Society (ETS) [10] and in addition of national scientific organizations such as DTG (Germany) [11], STS (Switzerland) [12] and GDR Thermoélectricité (France) [13] with the objective to promote cooperative research and communication between scientists at state level.

  1. Seebeck T (1822) Magnetische Polarisation der Metalle und Erze durch Temperatur-Differenz. Abhandlungen der Königlichen Preußischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin: 265–373
  2. Ørsted HC (1823) Nouvelles experiences de M. Seebeck sur les actions èlectro-magnetiques. Annales de Chimie et Physique 22: 375–389
  3. Peltier, J. C. A. (1834) Nouvelles expériences sur la caloricité des courans électriques. Annales de Chimie et de Physique 2(LVI): 371–387
  4. Lenz E (1838) Einige Versuche im Gebiete des Galvanismus. Annalen der Physik 120(6): 342–349. doi: 10.1002/andp.18381200612
  5. Thomson W (1851) On a Mechanical Theory of Thermo-Electric Currents. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh III(42): 91–98
  6. Altenkirch E (1909) Über den Nutzeffekt der Thermosäule. Physikalische Zeitschrift 10: 560–580
  7. Altenkirch E (1911) Elektrothermische Kälteerzeugung und reversible elektrische Heizung. Physikalische Zeitschrift 12: 920–924
  8. Ioffe AF (1957) Semiconductor thermoelements, and Thermoelectric cooling. Infosearch, London
  9. Birkholz U (1958) Untersuchungen der intermetallischen Verbindung Bi2Te2 sowie der festen Lösungen Bi2-xSbxTe3 und Bi2Te3-xSex hinsichtlich ihrer Eignung als Material für Halbleiter-Thermoelemente. Zeitschrift für Naturforschung 13a: 780–792
  10. European Thermoelectric Society ETS. www.thermoelectricity.eu
  11. Deutsche Thermoelektrik-Gesellschaft DTG. www.thermoelektrik.org
  12. Swiss Thermoelectric Society STS. www.thermoelectric.ch
  13. Groupement de Recherche Thermoélectricité GDR TE. www.gdr-thermoelectricite.cnrs.fr/