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Finding a common purpose: EU researchers harness waste heat in new ways


Imagine a health-monitoring device – as small and flexible as a plaster – that could check your blood pressure without any discomfort. Moreover, a device that requires no power source because it runs off the heat from your body. Or if the energy that is lost as waste heat because of inefficient technologies could be captured and used?

It is the potential of materials known as thermoelectrics to harness waste heat that drives Aljoscha Roch at the Fraunhofer Institute for Material and Beam Technology (IWS). Together with a pan-European team of researchers from 12 different organisations, the EU-funded project NanoCaTe (Nano-Carbon for versatile power supply modules) led by Roch is hoping to develop new devices that can exploit heat generated by our bodies to power small-scale health monitoring devices and waste heat more generally.

Photo of the Interviewee
Aljoscha Roch

Thermoelectric materials exploit a phenomenon known as the Seebeck effect, whereby an electrical current is generated whenever the material exposed to a change in temperature. The NanoCaTe project is exploring carbon-based materials to create environmentally friendly, printable, flexible thermoelectric energy harvesters.

Through international cooperation, and creating a sense of common purpose, Roch believes the NanoCaTe project will develop a new generation of energy harvesters that could make a big difference to industry and individual lives.

What do you hope to achieve with the project?

The aim of the project is to develop new materials based on nanotechnology for thermoelectric and energy storage applications. We would like to combine these technologies into one device, which can be used for maintenance-free applications such as self-powered autonomously working sensor platforms.
We are developing smart carbon nanostructures, which means carbon nanotubes, graphene, and nanoparticles, to use in our new materials. We are also investigating polymers, as these are interesting for flexible devices.

How and why did you become interested in this area?

Thermoelectrics offer huge potential for waste heat recovery. Not only in the medical device area, but in other industrial processes as well.
Since around 50% of all available energy in Europe is lost as waste heat, thermoelectrics offer a great opportunity for gaining back part of this. Developing new energy storage materials is also one of the big challenges for society. We are trying to push these developments forward a little bit.

What issues do you hope the project will tackle?

We would like to end up with a maintenance-free, autonomous sensor platform for health monitoring. But we hope the results can find other applications in energy generation and storage. In Europe, we have a big problem in terms of storing energy and reducing waste heat. The development of new thermoelectric materials could enable new energy generation and storage devices.
We are using nanotechnologies to create environmentally friendly materials for both energy storage and thermoelectric applications, as well as flexible and more efficient materials. We would like to see our results used in these types of applications.

What have you achieved so far?

First of all, we have developed a chip for power management that works quite well for low-power applications. New storage materials have also been developed very successfully. Now, for the third part of the project, we are working on flexible thermoelectric materials based on polymers or composites. We hope that after this we will have reached all the objectives of the project, including a platform for autologous monitoring.

What impact do you hope this project will have?

The impact could vary, of course, but we have developed more environmentally friendly materials. Rare earth elements are typically used in thermoelectric generators but we are trying to save resources with our materials. We are looking, for example, for polymers for these applications because they can be made from more readily available resources. 
In terms of applications, the impact will be in health monitoring. We aim, with our materials, to enable industry to create devices that enable people to monitor their blood pressure or blood sugar levels easily and noninvasively.
The benefit to the patient or user is that you have a completely autonomous device, powered by body heat and without the need for any energy storage technology like batteries or any maintenance. The device is very flexible and can be worn like a plaster on the skin or integrated into clothing. Theoretically, these devices could last for years, but we are demonstrating a plaster-like device that would be cheap and could be thrown away after a few days’ use. 
We are also aiming, in this project, to develop production technologies, such as roll-to-roll processes, to manufacture these devices. The biggest challenge here is to design the device in such a way that a roll-to-roll process can build up the device. So design is the first major issue, which we have solved in one way in our project, but the next is the flexible material.

What has been the most exciting aspect of participating in the project for you?

On the one hand, of course, it is that we are working towards an environmental friendly technology and a better future for Europe. But, on the other hand, there is also the opportunity to visit other institutes and countries and learn how they work, live and think.
It expands your horizons from the national level to the European level, which offers many more opportunities in your field.

What new skills have you, as an individual, acquired through the project?

Personally, I have acquired more self-confidence because this is the first that I have coordinated an EU project. But also my management competency has improved in general.

What have been the benefits of being part of an EU project?

I believe international cooperation is definitely accelerated through EU projects and you find many helpful contacts in other countries along the way. It is a big advantage to bring together competencies from all over Europe and when it comes to the final application, you have a better chance of finding specific partners for specific applications.
But the benefit is not only in successful co-operation, education and training is also supported by projects because many PhD students are involved in the work.
Participating in EU projects strengthens a sense of common purpose to work together for a better future for the region.

What are your key ingredients for a successful project?

On the one hand you need competent partners, a lot of ambition, and good communication – that is one of the most important things. Then you need also good social skills and you must trust in your partners!

Would you take part in another EU project?

Yes! But you must be convinced of the importance of your project idea. The proposal preparation is a lot of work, but if you are successful you have the chance to work with great partners on exciting topics and it has big benefits for your organisation. In fact, I am already working on a new proposal!

Project details

  • Project acronym: NANOCATE
  • Participants:Germany (Coordinator), Finland, Denmark, Spain, Austria
  • Project Reference N° 604647
  • Total cost: € 5 425 607
  • EU contribution: € 3 994 210
  • Duration:October 2013 - September 2017