Macroscopically Aligned Carbon Nanotubes for Efficient Thermophotovoltaic Energy Conversion

C.F. Doiron, W. Gao, X. Li, J. Kono, G.V. Naik
Rice University,
United States

Keywords: thermal radiation, nanophotonics, metamaterials


Single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNTs) exhibit many unique properties arising from their quantum confinement. However, the lack of a controllable large-scale alignment procedure had limited the exploration of their unique properties. Our recent work has overcome this problem by demonstrating a vacuum-filtration based technique to align SWCNTs on wafer-scale. These aligned SWCNT films exhibit many interesting optical properties such as extreme optical anisotropy or hyperbolic dispersion. Besides, aligned SWCNTs are flexible, refractory (stable up to 1900 K), inexpensive, and based on earth-abundant carbon making them an excellent refractory infrared nanophotonic material platform. Such a refractory infrared material platform is exactly what is necessary to enable efficient thermophotovoltaic energy conversion. Thermophotovoltaics is a solid-state heat-to-electricity conversion technique. It relies upon photovoltaic conversion of thermal light emanating from a hot surface to electricity. The broadband nature of thermal light makes the thermophotovoltaic conversion inefficient. Optical resonators, filters, spectrally selective thermal emitters are a few methods proposed to increase the efficiency of thermophotovoltaics. Selective thermal emitters are very promising due to their ease of design and integration. Selective thermal emitters are hot surfaces that emit thermal radiation in a narrow spectral band above the bandgap of the photovoltaic cell. The suppression of thermal emission below the bandgap and enhancement above the bandgap are the key requirements for efficient thermophotovoltaic conversion. Generally, optical properties of materials at high temperatures limit the performance of such selective emitters and the current efficiency record is about 8%. But, the hyperbolic optical property of aligned SWCNTs together with their thermal stability make aligned SWCNTs ideal for efficient thermophotovoltaics. Here in this work, we study the infrared optical properties of aligned SWCNTs at high temperatures (1000 K) and demonstrate spectrally selective thermal emission from plain and nano-patterned thin films. Using deep sub-wavelength sized optical cavities, we show that aligned SWCNTs exhibit hyperbolic dispersion in almost of all of infrared and enhance thermal photon density by at least 100 times. Such a large enhancement in thermal photon density leads to a large suppression of unwanted sub-bandgap thermal photons and a large enhancement of above-bandgap photons. Our analysis shows that aligned SWCNTs enable 30% or higher thermophotovoltaic efficiency when operating at 1300 K with no concentration. With near-field concentration, aligned SWCNTs can allow conversion efficiencies over 50%.