Thermal analysis and designs for non-radioactive thermoelectric generators for common small satellite types
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Small satellites on-orbit generate power today via solar panels. As more power-hungry parts are incorporated and the room to grow solar panel coverage is limited, power budgets are increasingly strained. Thermoelectric generators, which produce power from thermal gradients, present a possible secondary power source to help relax those constraints. Satellites on-orbit can see large temperature gradients, upwards of 100 degrees Celsius, due to their environment. These large gradients are well-suited for thermoelectrics to harvest. This project characterized the opportunity for such generators via thermal modeling and analysis of on-orbit thermal data and used solar panel data for performance comparison. Specific power for solar panels, calculated from information on published datasheets, ranged from 20.15 to 53.7 W/kg and hypothetical thermoelectric generators in this project harvesting thermal energy showed specific powers ranging from 10.25 to 154.99 W/kg. Based on the results, there is an opportunity for thermoelectrics competitive with solar panels and the greatest opportunity is on the back of deployed solar panels where the max specific power of 154.99 W/kg was found under certain parameters. This project used that data to drive the design of a planar thermoelectric generator as vmight be placed on the back of a deployed panel. The concept of using two FR-4 printed-circuit boards with thermoelectric elements sandwiched in between was validated and next steps for a functioning prototype outlined. This project also began an exploration into different internal architectures of a thermoelectric generator beyond a traditional grid and while no actionable results were found, it is believed that this is an area worth future work. The key takeaway is that this project lends support to the idea of trialing a thermoelectric generator on a small satellite to harvest environmental heat differences on such satellites.
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