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So-called thermoelectric generators turn waste heat into electricity without producing greenhouse gas emissions, providing what seems like a free lunch. But despite helping power the Mars rovers, the high cost of these devices has prevented their widespread use. Now, researchers have found a way to make cheap thermoelectrics that work just as well as the pricey kind. The work could pave the way for a new generation of greener car engines, industrial furnaces, and other energy-generating devices.

“This looks like a very smart way to realize high performance,” says Li-Dong Zhao, a materials scientist at Beihang University who was not involved with the work. He notes there are still a few more steps to take before these materials can become high-performing thermoelectric generators. However, he says, “I think this will be used in the not too far future.”

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