Harnessing the Hidden Power of Defects: Pioneering Energy Efficiency in Thermal Insulators

Abstract Energy Material Concept

Researchers have discovered that microscopically localized defects significantly impact thermal conduction in insulators. This finding, resulting from supercomputer-aided research on numerous crystalline materials, could advance the design of more energy-efficient nanoscale thermal insulators through defect engineering.

Scientists at the NOMAD Laboratory at the Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society have shed light on the microscopic mechanisms that determine thermal conduction in heat insulators. Through their computational research, they have demonstrated that even short-lived and microscopically localized defect structures have a substantial impact on macroscopic transport processes. This discovery could contribute to more energy-efficient technologies by allowing for the tailoring of nanoscale thermal insulators through defect engineering.

The NOMAD Laboratory researchers have recently elucidated fundamental microscopic mechanisms that offer to tailor materials for heat insulation. This development advances the ongoing efforts to enhance energy efficiency and sustainability.

The role of heat transport is crucial in various scientific and industrial applications, such as catalysis, turbine technologies, and thermoelectric heat converters that convert waste heat into electricity. Particularly in the context of energy conservation and the development of sustainable technologies, materials with high thermal insulation capabilities are of utmost importance. These materials allow us to retain and utilize heat that would otherwise go to waste. Therefore, improving the design of highly insulating materials is a key research objective in enabling more energy-efficient applications.

Anharmonicity in Thermal Insulators

Temporary formation of a defect pair in copper iodide. Although these defects only survive for a couple of picoseconds, i.e., for a trillionth of a second, they substantially influence macroscopic heat transport processes. Credit: © Florian Knoop, NOMAD Laboratory

However, designing strong heat insulators is far from trivial, despite the fact that the underlying fundamental physical laws are known for nearly a century. At a microscopic level, heat transport in semiconductors and insulators was understood in terms of the collective oscillation of the atoms around their equilibrium positions in the crystal lattice. These oscillations, called “phonons” in the field, involve zillions of atoms in solid materials and hence cover large, almost macroscopic length- and time-scales.

In a recent joint publication in Physical Review B (Editors Suggestions) and Physical Review Letters, researchers from the NOMAD Laboratory at the Fritz Haber Institute have advanced the computational possibilities to compute thermal conductivities without experimental input at unprecedented accuracy. They demonstrated that for strong heat insulators, the above-mentioned phonon picture is not appropriate. Using large-scale calculations on supercomputers at the Max Planck Society, the North-German Supercomputing Alliance, and the Jülich Supercomputing Centre, they scanned over 465 crystalline materials, for which the thermal conductivity had not been measured yet. Besides finding 28 strong thermal insulators, six of which feature an ultra-low thermal conductivity comparable to wood, this study shed light on hitherto typically overseen mechanisms that allow systematic lowering of thermal conductivity.

“We observed the temporary formation of defect structures that massively influences the atomic motion for an extremely short period of time,” says Dr. Florian Knoop (now Linköping University), first author of both publications. “Such effects are typically neglected in thermal-conductivity simulations, since these defects are so short-lived and so microscopically localized compared to typical heat-transport scales, that they are assumed to be irrelevant. However, the performed calculations showed that they trigger lower thermal conductivities,” adds Dr. Christian Carbogno, a senior author of the studies.

These insights may offer new opportunities to fine-tune and design thermal insulators on a nanoscale level through defect engineering, potentially contributing to advances in energy-efficient technology.


“Anharmonicity in Thermal Insulators: An Analysis from First Principles” by Florian Knoop, Thomas A. R. Purcell, Matthias Scheffler and Christian Carbogno, 7 June 2023, Physical Review Letters.
DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.130.236301

Ab initio Green-Kubo simulations of heat transport in solids: Method and implementation” by Florian Knoop, Matthias Scheffler and Christian Carbogno, 7 June 2023, Physical Review B.
DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevB.107.224304

1 Comment on "Harnessing the Hidden Power of Defects: Pioneering Energy Efficiency in Thermal Insulators"

  1. Ralph Johnson | June 19, 2023 at 8:13 pm | Reply

    It sounds like the design concept and effectiveness of the thermal insulation could be utilized in a similar fashion with adaptation to clear the noise from qubits used for quantum computing, maybe a collaborative effort between thermal dynamics and quantum computer engineering.

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