Sustainability – one layer of atoms at a time

Driven by a vision of a sustainable world, Per Eklund is leader of a research group that develops advanced materials. One of the amazing things these materials can do is use waste heat to produce electricity. His funding from the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation has now been extended by five years.

Per Eklund in the lab. Peter Holgersson

Linköping University. His position as Wallenberg Academy Fellow has recently been extended by five years to allow him to continue his research. The value of the research grant is SEK 8.75 million.

Congratulations! What does the extension mean to you?
It’s an amazing possibility for me and my group to focus on research for a long period. And this will be needed to solve difficult questions. In addition, it is an acknowledgement that our research is of the highest quality and relevant to societal development in Sweden, which is one of the stipulations of the Wallenberg statutes.

What does your research deal with?
To put it simply, we are trying to produce electricity from heat. Pretty much everyone, for example, has sat with a laptop on their knees and felt how warm it gets – all that energy is wasted at the moment. This type of energy loss is extremely widespread, and we see examples of both large-scale and small-scale effects. I want to change this using what are known as “thermoelectric materials”. These can convert heat, or to put it more accurately temperature differences, into electricity. Thermoelectric materials have been around for a long time, but what we do is build the material one layer of atoms at a time. This allows us to control the properties, and we hope that the process will be cheaper and allow us to manufacture on a larger scale.

What can it be used for?
The sky’s the limit! Our research can contribute to sustainable energy production and a sustainable society. The technology may in the long term come to be used in, for example, cars and large-scale industry, but we have to solve some critical issues before this is possible. The material is currently used for small-scale applications where it is impractical or impossible to use other electricity sources. These include, for example, power sources for sensors in chimneys, where we want to avoid climbing the chimney to replace a battery, or in areas where an alternative to stable electricity is not available. It is also possible to use body heat to produce electricity for wearable electronics.

How do you see the coming five years?
We are planning research that will build on our exciting discoveries from the past few years. One thing we want to develop are thermoelectric materials that have greater temperature stability, and are thus more versatile. We are also looking at new methods to manufacture the materials.

What is needed for successful research?
One factor for success is to have an open, exciting and secure research environment where people are generous with ideas and share freely. The research environment in materials science in Linköping has been built up over a long period, and we see how young researchers are developing all the time, which is extremely gratifying. It’s also important that researchers have excellent support. We have a strategic research area at LiU, an interdisciplinary laboratory for advanced functional materials, AFM. Our researcher colleagues and the environment are a huge support.

Facts: Wallenberg Academy Fellows

The Wallenberg Academy Fellows are the largest private investment into young researchers in Sweden. Not only does the programme provide top-flight young researchers with long-term resources, which means that they can concentrate on research, it also increases the internationalisation of Swedish research.

Translated by George Farrants

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