Dr Emmanuel Defay, Head of the Nanotechnologies Unit at the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST); Credit: LIST

Dr Emmanuel Defay, Head of the Nanotechnologies Unit at the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST), has received a European Research Council (ERC) grant worth €2.36 million over a five-year period to pursue his research project focused on transforming waste heat into electricity.

Electricity makes up about 20% of all the energy used worldwide, and experts think it will make up 40% by 2050, as an outcome of the need to decrease our dependence on non-renewable energies. Beyond sunlight and wind, heat is another promising yet poorly exploited source of electrical energy, LIST noted. “Right now, most of the heat we generate in the world gets wasted, but it could actually be used to make enough electricity to power all of Europe,” said Dr Defay. In this context, his team has shown that 40 grams of nonlinear pyroelectric ceramics (materials that generate electricity when they get hot and cold alternately) can make over ten joules of electricity from wasted heat during a single cycle of temperature change of 100 degrees, which is ten times greater than the closest current technology.

We also found out that these materials can convert heat into electricity with an efficiency of 40% with respect to the theoretical limit, which is better than what solar panels or thermoelectric devices can do in some specific cases,” Dr Defay added. The objective of his ERC-funded project is now to demonstrate that energy harvesters made from nonlinear pyroelectric materials can generate 100 watts of electrical power from heat, with an energy efficiency of 50%.

The ultimate goal is to develop a highly efficient technology over the five-year project timeline, and ideally, within ten years, achieve even greater efficiency,” he said. “Efficiency is crucial in converting heat to electricity, and while some mechanisms already exist, this technology has the potential to be extremely efficient.

Any industry that generates waste heat could benefit from this technology, especially those with high-quality waste heat, such as high-temperature processes like those found in steel production. Furthermore, this technology could also address situations where waste heat is not as high, Dr Defay explained, such as in many industries and households where temperatures are lower than 100 degrees Celsius. With a 50% efficiency rate, this technology could significantly improve the utilisation of lower temperature waste heat, making it more versatile and applicable to a wider range of industries.

Second ERC grant for LIST

ERC grants are awarded to Europe’s top researchers, and the process of obtaining an ERC Grant is highly competitive. The Advanced Grant, according to the ERC, “is amongst the most prestigious and competitive EU funding schemes (…) awarded to established, leading researchers with a proven track -record of significant research achievements over the past decade.

This is the first time a LIST researcher has received an Advanced Grant, and it represents the second ERC for LIST as an institution.

Dr Damien Lenoble, Director of the materials department at LIST, said: “In Europe, 1608 industrial sites, encompassing steel, cement, glass, aluminium, etc., collectively emit 425 PJ (PentaJoule) of excess heat at 95°C, equivalent to over 118 TWh (TeraWatt-hour), which presents a significant energy resource for advancing the electrification of the economy. Over the past five years, LIST has been dedicated to developing various technologies for harnessing multiple energy sources such as fluid flow, sea waves and electromagnetic waves to generate electricity. Among these initiatives, Dr Emmanuel Defay has pioneered the use of pyroelectric materials, leveraging the multidisciplinary skills of the materials department. We are honoured that the ERC panel has recognised and supported Emmanuel's innovative approach, enabled by LIST's unique combination of advanced thermal modelling, materials science and prototype engineering capabilities.