Thermoelectric Power Generation in the Core of a Nuclear Reactor

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Thermoelectric energy converters offer a promising solution to generate electrical power using heat in the nuclear reactor core. Despite significant improvements in thermoelectric efficiency of nanostructured materials, the performance of these advanced materials has yet to be demonstrated in the harsh radiation environment of a reactor core. Herein, we demonstrate a thermoelectric generator (TEG) made from nanostructured bulk half-Heusler (HH) materials generating stable electrical power density > 1140 W/m2 after 30 days in the MIT Nuclear Research Reactor under an unprecedented fast-neutron ( > 1 MeV) fluence of 1.5 × 1020 n/cm2. Despite an initial degradation due to irradiation damage when operating under relatively low temperatures, our TEG showed a 20-fold increase in power output when operating under high temperature due to in-situ annealing and resulting thermoelectric property recovery. First-principles modeling indicates that a chemically disordered metallic phase was formed under irradiation at lower temperatures, resulting in a drastic degradation in thermoelectric properties, while at sufficiently high temperatures the system returned to the initial chemically ordered HH phase and the thermoelectric properties recovered. Transmission electron microscopy and electron diffraction demonstrated that the chemically disordered phase was formed upon ion irradiation, confirming the prediction from first-principles simulations. The results suggest that with proper control over the TEG operating temperatures, the nanostructured bulk TEGs could produce stable electrical power and operate indefinitely in the core of a nuclear reactor.