Seebeck effect

The Seebeck effect is a phenomenon in which a temperature difference between two dissimilar electrical conductors or semiconductors produces a voltage difference between the two substances.

When heat is applied to one of the two conductors or semiconductors, heated electrons flow toward the cooler one. If the pair is connected through an electrical circuit, direct current (DC) flows through that circuit.

The voltages produced by Seebeck effect are small, usually only a few microvolts (millionths of a volt) per kelvin of temperature difference at the junction. If the temperature difference is large enough, some Seebeck-effect devices can produce a few millivolts (thousandths of a volt). Numerous such devices can be connected in series to increase the output voltage or in parallel to increase the maximum deliverable current. Large arrays of Seebeck-effect devices can provide useful, small-scale electrical power if a large temperature difference is maintained across the junctions.

Seebeck effect

The Seebeck effect is responsible for the behavior of thermocouples, which are used to approximately measure temperature differences or to actuate electronic switches that can turn large systems on and off. This capability is employed in thermoelectric cooling technology. Commonly used thermocouple metal combinations include constantan/copper, constantan/iron, constantan/chromel and constantan/alumel.

Thomas Johann Seebeck discovered the phenomenon in the 1800s. More recently, in 2008, physicists discovered what they are calling the spin Seebeck effect. The spin Seebeck effect is seen when heat is applied to a magnetized metal. As a result, electrons rearrange themselves according to their spin. Unlike ordinary electron movement, this rearrangement does not create heat as a waste product. The spin Seebeck effect could lead to the development of smaller, faster and more energy-efficient microchips as well as spintronics devices.

This was last updated in December 2008

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