If you’re reading this with a laptop sitting on your legs, you might have noticed that computers tend to warm up as they work, turning electrical energy into thermal energy. In fact, two-thirds of all the energy we use is lost as waste heat. Maybe, instead of just using the heat from your computer to keep your lap toasty, we should be harnessing that heat by turning it back into electricity. But the thermoelectric materials that convert thermal to electrical energy aren’t very good at their job. While they have some applications, the expense and inefficiency of current thermoelectric materials make them impractical for implementing at a large, power-saving scale. Until now: a new thermoelectric material might finally let us recover the energy lost to waste heat—at a reasonable price.
What’s the News: Computers are hot. Too hot, really, for their own good—not only can laptops burn users’ thighs, but big clusters of servers require constant air conditioning, leading cloud-computing companies to consider situating them in places like Iceland to save on costs.
On the other hand, for part of the year in a good chunk of the globe, humans are cold. Analysts at Microsoft Research wondered whether they couldn’t somehow make these two things match up.