Analyzing the Properties of Solid-state Refrigeration Technology: Thermoelectric Coolers (TEC)
For my capstone project, I chose to study Solid-state Refrigeration Technology and analyze the properties of a commercially available device, commonly called a Thermoelectric Cooler (TEC). Conventional refrigeration technology is a mechanical system that uses high pressure gases, typically a type of hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC), which is an aggressive greenhouse gas. TECs, on the other hand, have no moving parts that require maintenance or emit noise and use no high-pressure gases or liquids, which makes them extremely reliable. They are comprised of a series of p-type and n-type semiconductor pairs between two ceramic plates as these semiconductors have different charge carrying capabilities. I wanted to create a system to measure a typical TEC’s Cooling Capacity and Efficiency. In short--how much thermal energy can the TEC draw from an enclosed system per unit time and how much electricity did it take to perform the task? I designed and built a test apparatus to create as close to an ideal operating environment as possible so that my measurements could be as accurate as possible.
As an experience, I believe this project stood as a great representation of what our Physics and Astronomy Department strives to provide to every student as they complete the degree program. First, the project touched on many different disciplines of physics: electronics, thermodynamics, statistical mechanics and even quantum mechanics. Second, a long-term project like the capstone, in general, required near-constant problem solving, endurance and a proactive nature to complete. Last, this project seemed to require just as much applied, practical skill and knowledge as it did theoretical. The ability to make a thought, like my test apparatus, come to fruition as a tangible object in a laboratory is not only useful to the individual, but a skill extremely sought after by employers. Giving physics students the opportunity to spend a generous amount of time putting their theoretical knowledge and lab experience to the test in situations where there may not be just one “right answer” or even any “right answers” is a fantastic gift that will give them a leg-up whether they choose to continue their education or go straight to industry.