Adding It All Up

June 05, 2017

As a doctoral student at Stanford University, Saniya LeBlanc was given a simulation exercise that tasked her with designing an energy portfolio to meet the human population’s demand for energy. With that exercise, Dr. LeBlanc found her field of study.

“Seeing the link between this global need and the technologies that we can work on to meet that need, I just never looked back after that,” she says.

Now an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Dr. LeBlanc works to develop technologies that address the growing demand for energy, as well as to improve the energy efficiency of technologies that provide our energy services.

Some of her lab’s current projects use additive manufacturing (3D printing) methods to create energy conversion devices based on semiconductor nanomaterials. Using 3D printing, researchers are able to make multiscale—from nano to macro—geometries that traditional manufacturing techniques can’t achieve. These tunable geometries allow Dr. LeBlanc and her students to design energy devices that optimize energy conversion, turning unused heat into electricity, for example. She has been particularly interested in studying how to convert unused heat from thermoelectric generators into electricity.

“Thermoelectric generators convert heat to electricity through solid state, that is, the material itself converts heat into electricity,” explains Dr. LeBlanc. “It turns out that you can nanostructure a material to make it do that conversion more effectively. But what I also learned by studying thermoelectric generators is that the systems integration problems were actually limiting performance. It’s not just the material; it’s how the material is integrated into the overall system that can affect the performance and how much electricity you will actually get out of it.”

In a separate project, Dr. LeBlanc and her collaborator, Dr. Shannon Yee of Georgia Tech, are working to understand the link between the technical performance of specific energy materials and systems, and the economic requirements for the technologies to make it out of the lab and into the market. They were the first researchers to do a comprehensive techno-economic analysis for thermoelectric technology.

“We wanted to develop an analysis to figure out what the key problems are,” says Dr. LeBlanc. “We’re now cited as the leaders in this area for having developed the framework for how to think about this problem.”