The reason for this project was to solve a problem I have. I sometimes do several days of hiking/backpacking in the wild and I always bring a smartphone with GPS and maybe other electronics. They need electricity and I have used spare batteries and solar chargers to keep them running. The sun in Sweden is not very reliable. When you need it as most it´s either raining or other circumstances that makes it impossible to charge with solar panels. Even when it´s clear weather it simply take too long to charge. Batteries are good but heavy. I have looked for alternatives but they are either very expensive or too large.
One thing that I always bring with me though on a hiking is fire in some form, usually an alcohol or gas burner. If not that, then at least a fire steel to make my own fire. With that in mind, I got stuck by the idea of producing electricity from heat. I know, the efficiency is very poor but it is at least possible! So, with inspiration from my previous project (Thermoelectric-Fan-Driven-by-a-Candle) I decided to build my own thermoelectric charger. There are similar projects available but not that fulfill my requirements (what I could find).
I´m using a thermoelectic module, also called peltier element, TEC or TEG. You have one hot side and one cold. The temperature difference in the module will start producing electricity. The physical concept when you use it as a generator it's called the Seebeck effect. Thermoelectic modules are mainly used for the opposite effect, the Peltier effect. Then you apply a electric load and it will force a heat transfer from one side to the other. Often used in smaller refrigerators and coolers. Read more about i here:
- As small, light and portable as possible
- Adjustable voltage (want to use with broad range of products)
- At least 5V/0.2A (1W) to charge an iPhone 4s, 2W if possible
- Compatible with alcohol/gas burner, campfire and candles
With lots of testing and experimenting I come to the conclusion I would need a powerful TEG-module. I have previously used a cheap TEC-module (8€) but it only produce about 0.5W and too low voltage and max temperature. I could use several of them but it will be a more complicated and heat limited construction. I found a 40x40mm TEG that produce 5.9W (4.2V/1.4A) at 180ºC difference. It has a maximum operating temp of 350ºC (180ºC cold side), that should be enough. It´s quite expensive though, about 50€ but that is still cheaper than most solar chargers and much cheaper than other commercial thermoelectric chargers I found.
To transport away all heat and cool it with air you usually need a large heat sink. As my construction need to be compact and light weight, I was thereby limited to very small heat sinks. I then decided to "steel" a small amount of electricity and cool the construction with a motor/fan. That would result in less charging energy but that was the only thing I could think of to keep the size down (and not using water cooling). As it gets warmer, it produce more electricity and also more cooling power from the fan. To block heat from transferring to the cold side I used two heat insulated washers for the fixating and also a layer of insulation between the metal blocks.
First priority was to get a steady 5V source to drive different USB-devices. The module itself produce less than 5V. I solved that by constructing an adjustable regulated voltage Step-up. The detailed specifications can be found later in this project.
When I started this project I had no idea it would actually work. It turned out it even works over my expectations! I can charge my iPhone which was the main goal and it is completely self-cooled even with extreme heat sources.
The cooling is not optimal due to it´s small size, but I´m quite satisfied because I can bring it with me. I would happily see you construct even better solutions, I´m absolutely certain it could be made even cheaper and more efficient. There is a lot waste heat in this construction!
To actually make this yourself, keep reading! More testing and results in the end.
- Adjustable output voltage
- Adjustable RPM of cooling fan
- Adjustable temperature monitor
- Adjustable voltage limiter
- Adjustable construction height
- Optional USB-connector
- Easy to assemble/disassemble
This can be used with a broad range of heat sources and power a broad range of products.
- Candles (low output power)
- Spirit burner/stove (hard to control)
- Gas burner/stove (best so far)
- Wood stove (not yet tested)
- Camp fire (not yet tested)
- Metal can with fire (not yet tested)
- Barbecue (not yet tested)
- Light in the dark (LEDs)
- USB charger (Phones, batteries, etc.)
- External fan (cooling effect, fire booster, etc.)
- USB-gadgets (music player, drink cooler, etc.)
- Charge super capacitor and power high intensity SOS signals