Thermoelectric Effect, Thermoelectric current and the Seebeck Effect

There are three types of current flow in a semiconductor: Drift, diffusion, and thermoelectric. Drift current is very familiar as the study of conductors leads us to know that when a potential gradient (voltage) is established, electrons will flow in a conductor to balance this out. The same effect happens in semiconductors. However, there are two types of charge carriers in semiconductors: electrons AND holes. This leads to diffusion current, which is caused by a concentration gradient rather than a potential gradient.

The third kind of current within a semiconductor is called thermoelectric current. which involves the conversion of a temperature gradient to a voltage. A thermocouple is a device which measures the difference in potential across two dissimilar materials where one end is heated and the other is cold. It was found that the temperature difference was proportional to the potential difference. Although Alessandro Voltage first discovered this effect, it was later rediscovered by Thomas Seebeck. The combination of potential differences leads to the full definition of current density.



S is called as the “thermopower” or “Seebeck coefficient” which is units of Volts/Kelvin. The two equations of Ohm’s law (point form) and E_emf look remarkably similar.


The Seebeck coefficient is negative for negative charge carriers and positive for positive charge carriers, leading to a difference in the Seebeck Coeffecient between the P and N side of the PN junction above. This leads to the above circuit being used as a thermoelectric generator. If a voltage source replaces the resistor, the circuit becomes a thermal sensor. These (thermoelectric generators) are often employed by power plants to convert wasted heat energy into additional electric power. They are also used in car engine engines for the same reason (fuel efficiency). Solid state devices have a huge advantage in the sense that they require no moving parts or fluids which eliminates much of the need for maintenance. They also reduce environmental impact by converting waste heat into electrical energy.

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