Each day, we lose an enormous amount of energy to waste heat. Large power stations, for example, only convert about 40 percent of the energy they produce into electrical power. Much of this lost energy is released as waste heat. Scientists have long known that that installing thermoelectric generators (TEGs) on the interior of power plants’ cooling towers would increase efficiency by capturing waste heat and converting it to electricity. Unfortunately, producing TEGs has been difficult and expensive.

Now, scientists are using 3D printing to produce TEGs on a large scale relatively inexpensively. The electrically conductive, polymer-based TEGs are thin and flexible and can be installed along the inside walls of cooling towers.

There's been a lot of speculation about the potential applications of 3D printing. Some of it has been dismissive and, in the area of consumer products, at times negative (will the technology be used simply to produce more throwaway stuff?). But it seems there are countless opportunities to produce flexible, lightweight, highly customized equipment that greatly improves resource performance. Have you seen other industrial applications?

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