A Japanese Engineer is Making Thermoelectric Devices at Penn State

“I have to produce the next generation of thermoelectric devices for my company,” Shuichi Funahashi, an engineer from the giant electronic device manufacturer Murata Manufacturing Company, told me. Mr. Funahashi is visiting Penn State and MRI on a two-year research mission, tasked with finding new materials and devices to keep his company at the forefront of their industry. Murata sends young engineers to work with MRI researchers on a recurring basis. The relationship between Murata and the Center for Dielectric Studies, now the Center for Dielectrics and Piezoelectrics, based at NC State and Penn State, goes back many years.

“I focus on the materials, but the company has a broader program. Right now I am focusing on phonon mechanisms to improve materials and expand thermoelectric applications as a power source for wireless sensors,” he said. “Basically, thermoelectric materials will be used for heat recovery, but it is too early for companies to bring those to market. But in a small battery, the materials can be very useful.”

Shuichi is working with Clive Randall’s group on an oxide with low thermal conductivity. Oxides are not generally used as a thermoelectric material, but the results of their research seem promising enough to think they might improve the thermoelectric properties considerably, he said.

I asked him how he was getting along here in the U.S. and he responded enthusiastically. “Of course, I do like it here. I like nature and this atmosphere. Everyone is very kind.”

Amanda Baker, an MRI staff engineer in Randall’s group, helps him make his samples, and the microscopy staff helps with the electron microscope work. His devices incorporate the metal-oxide materials into multilayer ceramic capacitor technology in order to make thermoelectric generators. When he returns to Japan after his tour in the U.S., Shuichi hopes to continue his research on thermoelectric materials until his company has a world-leading product.  In the meantime, he is keeping his eyes open for any new technologies Murata might turn into products.