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Articles - December 2011
Tuesday, November 15, 2011

By Linda Baker

1211_NextChemistry is like cooking. Except instead of tenderizing a pork roast with lime, spices and soy sauce, a chemist might mix up a batch of indium cobalt antimony, sink the concoction in copper oxide and then nuke the results in the microwave. Or at least that’s what materials science professor Mas Subramanian and his post-doctoral researchers did recently in their Oregon State University lab. The goal was to produce a “skutterudite,” a type of compound that’s very good at solving an age-old problem: converting excess heat into useful electricity. Waste heat, be it car or factory exhaust, is considered an abundant source of electric power. It is also underutilized, in part because making materials such as skutterudites is a time-consuming undertaking. So like any harried chef, Subramanian took advantage of the microwave’s efficiencies to reduce the amount of time from a couple of days to just a few minutes. “It really speeds up the process,” says Subramanian, adding that the team is now looking for industrial collaborators to help scale up the research, an effort that could lead to more efficient factories and cars. So how did the team decide to zap a metal mixture? “It was mainly curiosity,” says Subramanian. The serendipitous outcome was classic “kitchen chemistry,” he adds. “Like making a pizza.”


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