Farming thermoelectric paper†
Waste heat to electricity conversion using thermoelectric generators is emerging as a key technology in the forthcoming energy scenario. Carbon-based composites could unleash the as yet untapped potential of thermoelectricity by combining the low cost, easy processability, and low thermal conductivity of biopolymers with the mechanical strength and good electrical properties of carbon nanotubes (CNTs). Here we use bacteria in environmentally friendly aqueous media to grow large area bacterial nanocellulose (BC) films with an embedded highly dispersed CNT network. The thick films (≈10 μm) exhibit tuneable transparency and colour, as well as low thermal and high electrical conductivity. Moreover, they are fully bendable, can conformally wrap around heat sources and are stable above 500 K, which expands the range of potential uses compared to typical conducting polymers and composites. The high porosity of the material facilitates effective n-type doping, enabling the fabrication of a thermoelectric module from farmed thermoelectric paper. Because of vertical phase separation of the CNTs in the BC composite, the grown films at the same time serve as both the active layer and separating layer, insulating each thermoelectric leg from the adjacent ones. Last but not least, the BC can be enzymatically decomposed, completely reclaiming the embedded CNTs.