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Multilayer Thermionic Refrigeration

G. D. Mahan and L. M. Woods
Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee 37996-1200
and Solid State Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tennessee 37831-6030
(Received 2 December 1997)
A new method of refrigeration is proposed. Efficient cooling is obtained by thermionic emission of
electrons over Schottky barriers between metals and semiconductors. Since the barriers have to be thin,
each barrier can have only a small temperature difference s,1 Kd. Macroscopic cooling is obtained
with a multilayer device. The same device is also an efficient generator of electrical power. A complete
analytic theory is provided. [S0031-9007(98)05938-9]

PACS numbers: 72.20.Pa, 44.10. + i, 73.40.Sx, 85.80.Fi

We provide the first detailed theoretical analysis of electric effect. The first idea is to have cooling by a single
a new method of cooling which we call multilayer barrier. For example, in a three-layer sandwich consisting
thermionic refrigeration. The same device can be used of metal-semiconductor-metal, the semiconductor is a bar-
for power generation. We show that the expected effi- rier to the flow of electrons. We explain below why this
ciency is somewhere between one and two. This value idea does not work, and one is forced to go to the multilayer
is similar to freon-based refrigeration, and twice better geometry. Then we analyze the properties of a system of
than thermoelectric refrigeration [1,2]. The need to cool N such barriers, consisting of a device of 2N 1 1 layers
microelectronics, as well as to avoid the freon-ozone which are alternately metal and semiconductors. The same
problem, has spurred the investigation of new methods of analysis also applies to periodic barriers formed from a su-
refrigeration. perlattice of multiple semiconductor quantum wells when
Recently [3] one of us proposed a new method of refrig- the current flow is perpendicular to the layers.
eration based on thermionic emission. For a device with a The reason for a multilayer device is that thermionic
vacuum gap between parallel metal electrodes, room tem- emission is the correct model only when the barrier
perature refrigeration can be obtained with a work function thickness L is less than the mean-free path of the electron
less than 0.3 eV. This value is less than the work func- l in the barrier. We wish to work in the regime where
tion for any known materials. Several groups have noted the electron can ballistically traverse the semiconductor
that such small barriers can be obtained in semiconductor barrier without scattering so that it does not diffuse.
multilayers [4–9]. In these cases, such as GaAs/AlAs, the On the other hand, if L . l, then the electron flow
barrier height can be adjusted by the alloying of Ga and Al through the semiconductor is described by the equation
in the Alx Ga12x barrier. We agree that this is viable ge- for the current due to drift and diffusion [13]. In this
ometry, although materials with low thermal conductivity quasiequilibrium case, transport of heat is described by
such as PbTe would make better superlattices [10]. We the thermoelectric equations. The heat currents in this
also note that the Schottky barriers between some metals case are smaller.
and semiconductors have barriers less than 0.1 eV [11,12]. Since the barrier thickness L is small, then the ordinary
In these cases, a device could be built which had alternate heat flow s2KdTyLd due to thermal conduction is going
layers of metals and semiconductors, where the semicon- to be big for small L unless dT is also small. Since
ductors are the barrier regions. Table I lists some typi- heat conduction lowers the efficiency, this conduction is
cal systems with small barriers which could be used for reduced by insisting that dT is also small. Each thin
multilayer thermionic refrigeration and power generation. barrier can permit only a small temperature difference.
Here we present a detailed analysis of the factors which
make thermionic cooling viable in a multilayer geometry.
TABLE I. Schottky barrier heights in eV, for various barriers
This includes multiple quantum wells, as well as other and electrodes. Fsxd denotes values which are functions of x.
periodic structures such as alternate layers of metal and The first two are metal-semiconductor superlattices, while the
semiconductors. others are semiconductor superlattices.
In thermionic emission, cooling is obtained when the
Barrier Electrode ef Ref.
thermally excited electrons escape over the barrier. Since
hot electrons are leaving, the electrode cools. In equilib- In0.7 Ga0.3 As Au 0.10 [11]
rium, electrons flow in both directions over the barrier, and InSb Au 0.10 [12]
there is no net cooling. Applying a voltage drives more Eux Pb12x Te PbTe Fsxd [10]
Sb2 Te3 Bi2 Te3 0.035 [8]
electrons in one direction, and one electrode cools while
Ge Si 0.10 [8]
the other heats up. It is a Peltier effect, but not a thermo-

4016 0031-9007y98y80(18)y4016(4)$15.00 © 1998 The American Physical Society


A macroscopic temperature difference DT ­ NdT is b­

, (6)
achieved by having N barriers. Hence the need for kB T
the multilayer geometry. Adequate cooling power is
available even for dTi ø 1 K. The energy current from eVJ ­ kB dTfb 1 2g , (7)
thermionic emission is approximately given by JQ ø ∑ ∏
AT dTf exps2efykB Td. With A ­ 120 Ayscm Kd2 , eVQ ­ kB dT b 1 2 1 , (8)
T ­ 260 K, dT ­ 1 K, and f ­ 0.05 V, the prefactor b12
of this expression is about 2 kWycm2 . The exponential e
will reduce this by about a factor of 10, but there is ample Z­ ­ Z0 e b , (9)
kB R1 JR
energy current even for small temperature changes.
µ ∂2
Another requirement for thermionic emission is that ekB TR
the electrons do not tunnel through the barrier. They Z0 ­ ­ , (10)
R1 AskB T d2 T T
must be thermally excited over the barrier. Electron
tunneling through a square barrier of height efp and width 2p 2 h̄3
skB TR d2 ­ . (11)
L has a probability with an exponent of 2L 2mp efyh̄ 2 . mkB R1 T
Thermionic emission has a probability with an exponent Equation (2) is the standard Richardson’s equation [13]
of efykB T. For tunneling to be less important than for the thermionic current over a work function ef which
thermionic emission, its exponent must be the largest. in this case is the Schottky barrier height between the
This gives the constraint l . L . Lt on the minimum metal and semiconductor. The factor of T denotes
thickness Lt s the fraction of electrons transmitted from the metal to
h̄ ef the semiconductor. The formulas for J and JQ assume the
Lt ­ . (1)
2kB T mp bias edV is to lower the Fermi level on the hot side, so
that the net flow of electrons is from cold to hot. We have
These constraints are met easily. Most semiconductors introduced the dimensionless constant Z0 which plays
with low barriers have narrow energy gaps, and therefore an important role in the results. Refrigeration requires
high mobilities. Typical numbers are that Lt , 10 nm that dV . VQ . High efficiency requires that Z0 , 4.
while l , 100 nm. There is a wide range of permis- The dimensional constant TR , which is determined by
sible barrier thicknesses. Also note that the tunneling the thermal resistivity, should be less than about 500 K.
and thermionic currents have different prefactors, which For example, if L ­ 50 nm in a material with K ­
slightly alter the formula Lt . However, the above for- 1.0 Wysm Kd, then R1 ­ LyK ­ 5 3 1028 m2 KyW and
mula is a quick and reasonable estimate. TR ­ 440 K if m is an electron mass and T ­ 1.
First, we solve for the currents over a single barrier. Clearly this constraint limits the values of Z0 and TR
We assume the barrier is constant when the applied which have acceptable efficiency. For larger values of
voltage is zero, but has the shape of a sawtooth with a Z0 the effective efficiency becomes too small to be
nonzero voltage dV. The formulas for the electrical sJd useful. As discussed in Refs. [14–18], the superlattice
and heat sJQ d currents are given in Ref. [3] in terms of the has a thermal resistance about 10 times larger than the
hot and cold temperatures sTh , Tc d and the applied voltage resistance of the materials in it. The scattering from
dV. We add to the heat current the thermal conduction the interfaces gives a large thermal resistance [19,20].
dTyR1 where R1 is the thermal resistance of a single This significant increase in the thermal resistance due to
barrier. We now solve these equations for the case that boundary scattering is an important aspect of getting high
the temperature difference dT ­ Th 2 Tc is small, and efficiency from the multilayer thermionic device.
the voltage dV on a single barrier is small. We will Now consider the theory of the multilayer thermionic
show that for a single layer the optimal value of applied refrigerator. We assume N barriers, with alternate elec-
bias edV ~ dT which is also small. Denote as T the trodes. Denote dTi and dVi to be the temperature and
mean temperature of the layer, and then Tc ­ T 2 dTy2, voltage changes across one barrier. These values change
Th ­ T 1 dTy2. Then we expand the formulas for the substantially from the initial to the final layer. This
currents in the small quantities sdTyT , edVykB T d and get change is due to the generation and flow of heat. At each
JR ­ AT 2 e 2efykB T , (2) barrier, the electron ballistically crosses the barrier region,
and then loses an amount of energy edVi in the electrode.
emkB2 The heat generated at each electrode must flow out of the
A­ T , (3) sample according to the equation
2p 2 h̄ 3
d dVi
eJR sJQi d ­ J , (12)
J ­ fdV 2 VJ g , (4) dx Li
kB T
where Li is the effective width of one barrier plus one
JQ ­ JR sb 1 2d fdV 2 VQ g , (5) metal electrode. We take Li to be a constant, although it


could vary with i. The device thickness is D ­ NLi . We

assume that the functions change slowly with i and we can
treat them as continuous variables dT ydx and dV ydx.
These are not thermoelectric devices. However, it
is useful to examine the analogy with thermoelectric
devices. Once we linearize the equations for small
voltage drops, and then make them continuous in a
multilayer geometry, they are identical in form to the
equations of a thermoelectric. This analogy is obtained
with the relationships for the conductivity s, the Seebeck
coefficient S, and the thermal conductivity K.
eJR Li
s­ , (13)
kB T
S­ sb 1 2d , (14)
µ ∂
kB 1
K ­ 2 JR 1 Li , (15) FIG. 1. The efficiency h of a refrigerator, with Tc ­ 260 K
e R1 and Th ­ 300 K, as a function of barrier height f for several
sS 2 T sb 1 2d2 values of TR . Results are higher than for a thermoelectric
Z ­ ­ . (16) refrigerator which has h ­ 0.70 when ZT ­ 1.
K s2 1 zd
The first term in the thermal conductivity is the electronic
contribution Ke . The last line gives the dimensionless
figure of merit Z. It is known in thermoelectric devices thermoelectric module sh ø 0.7d. The present devices
that one wants to have Z to be as large as possible. have a higher efficiency. We have run many cases of
Varying b to maximize Z gives the relationship cooling with different parameters. The computer predicts
µ ∂2 that one can even cool over a temperature difference of
beb ­ 4 , (17) DT ­ 100 from room temperature. We also find that the
estimate (18) is accurate to about 1%.
where T is the mean temperature in the device. We find The same equations apply to the calculation of the
this to be an accurate estimate of the optimal barrier power generator. Then the electrons flow from hot to
height f. Furthermore, the thermoelectric estimates of cold. Equations (4), (5), and (12) still apply but now
the efficiency of the refrigerator shr d and generator shg d, J and JQ are negative. We compare the efficiency of
gTc 2 Th the generator to those of thermoelectric devices with a
hr ­ , (18) dimensionless figure of merit ZT ­ 1. If Tc ­ 300 K
DTsg 1 1d
and Th ­ 400 K, the thermoelectric generator has an ef-
DTsg 2 1d ficiency of h ­ 0.048. Two sets of results are given
hg ­ , (19)
gTh 1 Tc for thermionic devices (“TI”) corresponding to TR ­
p 200 K sh ­ 0.099d and TR ­ 400 K sh ­ 0.065d. The
g ­ 11Z, (20) thermionic device with TR ­ 200 K has twice the effi-
are remarkably accurate compared to the computer solu- ciency of a thermoelectric one for the same range of tem-
tions. In thermoelectric devices it is rare to have val- perature difference. It is interesting that increasing TR by
ues of Z to be larger than one. However, in modeling a factor of 2 has only a small change in the efficiency.
thermionic devices we find values of Z much larger than This is equivalent to a factor of 4 change in the thermal
one for reasonable values of thermal resistance. The ef- resistance. The optimal barrier height f shifts downward
ficiencies of the thermionic devices are correspondingly in value as TR is increased, and partly compensates for the
much higher than in thermoelectric devices. Ballistic change in thermal resistance.
transport carries more heat than diffusive flow. The cooling power of this device may already have
We have solved numerically Eqs. (4), (5), and (12) been demonstrated. In Ref. [8] the authors report signifi-
using the methods in Ref. [21]. Figure 1 shows the cant cooling along the c axis in a multilayer device. They
numerical results for a refrigerator with Tc ­ 260, Th ­ explain this behavior as due to an increased thermoelectric
300, and several values of TR . This calculation was effect, and interpret it as an increase in the Seebeck coeffi-
done for N ­ 40, but any large value of N gives the cient. Their barrier layers are so thin that we suggest they
same result. These results should be compared to the are observing thermionic emission rather than increased
efficiencies of a freon compressor sh ø 1.4d and a thermoelectricity. For their device with superlattice


constant 200 Å we estimate R1 ­ 16 3 1028 m2 KyW [6] B. Moyzhes, in Proceedings of the 15th International
which gives TR ­ 246 K. Conference on Thermoelectrics, 1996 (IEEE Service Cen-
We have prepared a longer manuscript [22] where these ter, Piscataway, NJ, 1996), p. 183.
ideas are discussed at greater length. [7] A. Shakouri and J. E. Bowers, Appl. Phys. Lett. 71, 1234
In summary, we announce the invention of a new (1997).
[8] R. Venkatasubramanian and T. Colpitts, in Thermoelectric
method of refrigeration and power generation based on
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They have no adverse environmental impacts. ing” (to be published).
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