Diffuse charge dynamics in ionic thermoelectrochemical systems
AbstractThermoelectrics are increasingly being studied as promising electrical generators in the ongoing search for alternative energy sources. In particular, recent experimental work has examined thermoelectric materials containing ionic charge carriers; however, the majority of mathematical modeling has been focused on their steady-state behavior. Here, we determine the time scales over which the diffuse charge dynamics in ionic thermoelectrochemical systems occur by analyzing the simplest model thermoelectric cell: a binary electrolyte between two parallel, blocking electrodes. We consider the application of a temperature gradient across the device while the electrodes remain electrically isolated from each other. This results in a net voltage, called the thermovoltage, via the Seebeck effect. At the same time, the Soret effect results in migration of the ions toward the cold electrode. The charge dynamics are described mathematically by the Poisson-Nernst-Planck equations for dilute solutions, in which the ion flux is driven by electromigration, Brownian diffusion, and thermal diffusion under a temperature gradient. The temperature evolves according to the heat equation. This nonlinear set of equations is linearized in the (experimentally relevant) limit of a “weak” temperature gradient. From this, we show that the time scale on which the thermovoltage develops is the Debye time, 1/Dκ2, where D is the Brownian diffusion coefficient of both ion species, and κ−1 is the Debye length. However, the concentration gradient due to the Soret effect develops on the bulk diffusion time, L2/D, where L is the distance between the electrodes. For thin diffuse layers, which is the condition under which most real devices operate, the Debye time is orders of magnitude less than the diffusion time. Therefore, rather surprisingly, the majority of ion motion occurs after the steady thermovoltage has developed. Moreover, the dynamics are independent of the thermal diffusion coefficients, which simply set the magnitude of the steady-state thermovoltage.