Photovoltaic Anodes for Enhanced Thermionic Energy Conversion

Thermionic energy converters are heat engines based on the direct emission of electrons from a hot cathode toward a colder anode. Because the thermionic emission is unavoidably accompanied by photonic emission, radiative energy transfer is a significant source of losses in these devices. We have provided the experimental demonstration of a hybrid thermionic–photovoltaic device that is able to produce electricity not only from the electrons but also from the photons that are emitted by the cathode. Thermionic electrons are injected in the valence band of a gallium arsenide semiconducting anode, then pumped to the conduction band by the photovoltaic effect, and finally extracted from the conduction band to produce useful energy before they are reinjected in the cathode. We have shown that such a hybrid device produces a voltage boost of about 1 V with
respect to a reference thermionic device made of the same materials and operating under the same conditions. This proof of concept paves the way to the development of efficient thermionic and photovoltaic devices for the direct conversion of heat into electricity.

Contact person: Daniele Trucchi, ISM Roma Tor Vergata