Bruce White worked with semiconductors and transistors at Motorola and Texas Instruments. But when he left industry for a position on Binghamton University’s faculty, the materials scientist decided to take his research in a new direction. “I didn’t want to just continue to work on transistors and memory,” White says. “I wanted to try to apply those tools to big problems that impact society.” Energy is one of those big problems; in the United States, more than half of the energy we burn each year gets lost as heat instead of being put to use. “We do all this work to get oil out of the ground and to refine it, but when we try to do some work with it, most of the energy goes out the exhaust pipe of a car or out the smokestack of a power plant,” White says. “Even if we could reclaim a small fraction of what we throw away as heat, that would have a significant impact on our energy use.” There are ways to turn heat into electricity. If a material is hot on one side and cold on the other, the flow of heat from hot to cold can be turned
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