Good news it was to see nanotech featured in The Economist, May 14-20, 2011 issue, pages 100-101. The story featured work from MIT (Gang Chen) and Boston College (Zhifeng Ren) which was recently published in Nature Materials. The gist is that a new type of solar cell is proposed, wherein nanoparticles of bismuth telluride are used to create a new type of solar cell based on the unheralded thermoelectric effect. According to the reporters, a key aspect of the technology is the nanoscale. The small size provides good electrical conduction but poor thermal conduction "through imperfectly understood quantum-mechanical processes." Initial solar efficiencies are sufficiently high to attract commercial interest, per the article.
Thermolectric effects are increasingly found in nanotechnology patent filings. For example, in this year alone (not yet half way finished), ten 977 patent applications have published which mention "thermoelectric" in the abstract. This may not seem a lot, but it represent almost 1% of the 977 patent publications for this year to date (10/1149). Prior years show far lower rates of filings (e.g., 2010 was only 6 publications at 0.22 %; 2009 was only 7 at 0.47%). One of them for 2011 is US Patent Publication 2011/0108778 which includes Chen and Ren and, according to public PTO records, is assigned to both MIT and Boston College.
GMZ Energy is a company co-founded by Chen and Ren to commercialize thermoelectric materials and, according to news reports, recently received multi-million dollar venture funding. The Economist article, however, did not mention GMZ Energy.