The Seebeck Effect: How Temperature Differences Generate Electricity

The Seebeck effect is a phenomenon that converts temperature differences into electric voltage and vice versa. It is named after Thomas Johann Seebeck, a German physicist who discovered it in 1821. The Seebeck effect is the basis of thermocouples, thermoelectric generators, and spin caloritronics.

Thomas Seebeck

What is the Seebeck Effect?

The Seebeck effect is defined as the generation of an electric potential (or voltage) across two different conductors or semiconductors that are connected in a loop and have a temperature difference between their junctions. The voltage is proportional to the temperature difference and depends on the materials used.

What Is The Seebeck Effect

For example, a thermocouple is a device that uses the Seebeck effect to measure temperature. It consists of two wires made of different metals (such as copper and iron) that are joined at both ends. One end is exposed to a hot source (such as a flame) and the other end is kept cold (such as in ice water). The temperature difference between the ends creates a voltage across the wires, which can be measured by a voltmeter.

The Seebeck effect can also be used to generate electricity from waste heat. A thermoelectric generator is a device that consists of many thermocouples connected in series or parallel. The hot side of the thermocouples is attached to a heat source (such as an engine or a furnace) and the cold side is attached to a heat sink (such as air or water). The temperature difference between the sides produces a voltage that can power an electric load (such as a light bulb or a fan).

How Does the Seebeck Effect Work?

The Seebeck effect can be explained by the behavior of electrons in conductors and semiconductors. Electrons are negatively charged particles that move freely in these materials. When a conductor or a semiconductor is heated, its electrons gain more kinetic energy and tend to move faster. This causes them to diffuse from the hot region to the cold region, creating an electric current.

seebeck effect

However, different materials have different numbers and types of electrons available for conduction. Some materials have more electrons than others, and some have electrons with different spin orientations. Spin is a quantum property of electrons that makes them act like tiny magnets. When two materials with different electron characteristics are joined together, they form an interface where electrons can exchange energy and spin.

The Seebeck effect occurs when two such interfaces are subjected to a temperature difference. The electrons at the hot interface gain more energy and spin from the heat source and transfer them to the electrons at the cold interface through the loop. This creates an imbalance of charge and spin between the interfaces, resulting in an electric potential and a magnetic field. The electric potential drives an electric current through the loop, while the magnetic field deflects a compass needle placed near it.

What are the Applications of the Seebeck Effect?

The Seebeck effect has many applications in science, engineering, and technology. Some of them are:

  • Thermocouples: These are devices that use the Seebeck effect to measure temperature with high accuracy and sensitivity. They are widely used in industries, laboratories, and households for various purposes, such as controlling ovens, monitoring engines, measuring body temperature, etc.
  • Thermoelectric generators: These are devices that use the Seebeck effect to convert waste heat into electricity for special applications, such as powering spacecraft, remote sensors, medical implants, etc.
  • Spin caloritronics: This is a branch of physics that studies how heat and spin interact in magnetic materials. The Seebeck effect plays an important role in this field, as it can create spin currents and voltages from temperature gradients. This can lead to novel devices for information processing and storage, such as spin batteries, spin transistors, spin valves, etc.

What are the Advantages and Limitations of the Seebeck Effect?

The Seebeck effect has some advantages and limitations that affect its performance and efficiency. Some of them are:

  • Advantages: The Seebeck effect is simple, reliable, and versatile. It does not require any moving parts or external power sources. It can operate over a wide range of temperatures and materials. It can generate electricity from low-grade heat sources that would otherwise be wasted.
  • Limitations: The Seebeck effect is limited by the availability and compatibility of materials. It requires materials with high electrical conductivity and low thermal conductivity to achieve high voltage and low heat loss. It also requires materials with different Seebeck coefficients to create a voltage difference. The Seebeck coefficient is a property that measures how much voltage is generated per unit temperature difference for a given material. The Seebeck coefficient depends on the type and concentration of charge carriers, their energy levels, and their interactions with the lattice. The Seebeck coefficient can vary with temperature, composition, and magnetic field. Finding materials with high and stable Seebeck coefficients is a challenge for thermoelectric applications.

What are the Types of Materials Used for the Seebeck Effect?

The materials used for the Seebeck effect can be classified into three categories: metals, semiconductors, and superconductors.

  • Metals: Metals are good conductors of both electricity and heat. They have low Seebeck coefficients and high thermal conductivity, which makes them inefficient for thermoelectric applications. However, metals are easy to fabricate and connect, and they have high mechanical strength and stability. Metals are commonly used for thermocouples, where accuracy and durability are more important than efficiency. Some examples of metal pairs used for thermocouples are copper-constantan, iron-constantan, chromel-alumel, etc.
  • Semiconductors: Semiconductors are materials that have an intermediate electrical conductivity that can be controlled by doping or applying an electric field. They have higher Seebeck coefficients and lower thermal conductivity than metals, which makes them more suitable for thermoelectric applications. However, semiconductors are more difficult to fabricate and connect, and they have lower mechanical strength and stability than metals. Semiconductors are commonly used for thermoelectric generators and coolers, where efficiency and performance are more important than accuracy and durability. Some examples of semiconductor pairs used for thermoelectric devices are bismuth telluride-antimony telluride, lead telluride-silicon germanium, etc.
  • Superconductors: Superconductors are materials that have zero electrical resistance below a critical temperature. They have very high Seebeck coefficients and very low thermal conductivity, which makes them ideal for thermoelectric applications. However, superconductors are very rare and expensive, and they require very low temperatures to operate, which limits their practical use. Superconductors are mainly used for research purposes, such as studying the spin Seebeck effect, which is a phenomenon that involves the generation of a spin voltage from a temperature gradient in a magnetic material.


The Seebeck effect is a fascinating phenomenon that converts temperature differences into electric voltage and vice versa. It has many applications in science, engineering, and technology, such as thermocouples, thermoelectric generators, thermoelectric coolers, and spin caloritronics. The Seebeck effect depends on the materials used, their electrical conductivity, thermal conductivity, and Seebeck coefficient. Finding materials with high and stable Seebeck coefficients is a challenge for improving the efficiency and performance of thermoelectric devices.

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