From Waste to Resource: Turning Exhaust Heat into Energy with Unprecedented Efficiency

Scientists design a novel thermoelectrochemical cell that efficiently converts waste heat into electricity for low-power devices

(From left) Jun-sik Kang, an integrated master’s and doctoral student in the Department of Energy Engineering and Professor Hochun Lee, who pioneered the novel TEC for efficient harvesting of waste heat.

Low-grade waste heat is an extremely abundant and ubiquitous energy source, making it an ideal option for powering IoT devices. Now, scientists from DGIST, Korea have designed a thermoelectric-concentration cell that converts it to electricity.

Thermoelectrochemical cells (TECs) show promise in utilizing waste heat to generate electrical energy. However, a low conversion efficiency has limited their application. Now, scientists at Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology, Korea, have designed a novel hybrid thermoelectrochemical-concentration cell that outperforms similar state-of-the-art devices, opening doors to commercially feasible energy harvesting systems that could power IoT devices and sensors by leveraging thermal energy.


Thanks to the ongoing digital revolution, we are on the verge of transitioning to a hyper-connected world. However, the Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices and remote sensors that promise such a reality require energy. With sustainability as a top priority, the energy source must be abundant, ubiquitous, and renewable. Fortunately, low-grade waste heat (temperatures below 100 °C) could fit the bill provided we develop efficient energy harvesting technologies.


The conversion of a temperature difference into electricity is already possible through thermoelectrochemical cells (TECs). These devices can leverage waste heat to sustain a reduction–oxidation (redox) reaction that, in turn, produces electricity. However, current state-of-the-art TECs are lacking commercial implementations due to their low energy conversion efficiency, lackluster output power, and costly fabrication. A breakthrough in energy conversion is, therefore, needed for TECs to become viable for untethered low-power devices.


Against this backdrop, a team of scientists at Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology (DGIST), Korea, devised an effective strategy to take it up a notch. Led by Professor Hochun Lee, these researchers combined the operating principle of TECs with that of concentration galvanic cells, creating a hybrid thermoelectrochemical-concentration cell (TCC). Although TCCs are not a new concept, the design put forward by the team overcomes some critical limitations of existing TECs.


The TCC reported in this study, which was published in the Chemical Engineering Journal, is based on redox reactions involving iodine ions (I) and triiodide (I3). Unlike in conventional TECs, however, these reactions occur in a non-aqueous carbonate solution that uses dimethyl carbonate (DMC) as a solvent. This particular selection of materials creates a peculiar effect.


The researchers found that as the temperature of the hot side increased beyond 40 °C, the DMC reacted with I to produce a porous, gel-like layer of Li2CO3 near the hot electrode that helped maintain a large difference in the concentrations of I and I3 throughout the cell, greatly boosting its performance. “Our hybrid cell demonstrates a remarkable thermal conversion efficiency (5.2%) and outperforms the current best n-type TECs,” says Prof. Lee. “In addition, the simple structure and fabrication process of our TCCs offer a practically feasible platform for thermal energy harvesting.


Further studies will be needed to refine this unprecedented approach to TCC design and, hopefully, achieve the goal of connecting multiple TCCs in series to reach commercially acceptable capabilities. “IoT-connected societies will require economic and autonomous power sources for their IoT devices and sensors, and we believe TECs will be the ideal candidate to meet their need,” concludes an optimistic Prof. Lee.


Hopefully, science will lead us to sustainable and more efficient ways to make good use of waste heat.




Kyunggu Kim, Junsik Kang, and Hochun Lee

Title of original paper:

Hybrid thermoelectrochemical and concentration cells for harvesting low-grade waste heat


Chemical Engineering Journal




Energy Science & Engineering, DGIST


*Corresponding author’s email: [email protected]



About Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology (DGIST)

Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology (DGIST) is a well-known and respected research institute located in Daegu, Republic of Korea. Established in 2004 by the Korean Government, the main aim of DGIST is to promote national science and technology, as well as to boost the local economy.

With a vision of “Changing the world through convergence", DGIST has undertaken a wide range of research in various fields of science and technology. DGIST has embraced a multidisciplinary approach to research and undertaken intensive studies in some of today's most vital fields. DGIST also has state-of-the-art-infrastructure to enable cutting-edge research in materials science, robotics, cognitive sciences, and communication engineering.





About the author

Hochun Lee is a full professor of the Energy Science and Engineering department at DGIST, Korea. Before joining DGIST, he worked for LG Energy Solution for seven years developing functional electrolytes for commercial Li-ion batteries. Now, at DGIST, he investigates the correlation between the microstructure of electrolytes with battery performance and focuses on developing thermal conversion applications. He has so far published 80 papers with over 1900 citations to his credit.