In 2008, the Rockefeller Family’s Silicon Valley venture capital firm, Venrock, tapped chemist-turned-venture-capitalist Anthony Atti to evaluate promising thermoelectric research conducted by Patrick McCann, a professor of engineering at the University of Oklahoma. McCann’s technology showed the potential to use semiconductors to capture waste heat and convert it into power, as well as to displace heat to cool everything from personal computers to tractor-trailer refrigeration units.
About 55 percent of all energy consumed in the U.S. returns to the environment as wasted heat, according to energy systems analyst A.J. Simon of the Energy Dept.’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Traditional thermoelectric devices used for cooling are quiet, compact, and reliable, but efficiency has been very low since they were first commercialized more than 25 years ago. McCann’s breakthrough could make them more efficient by using new materials.