Or, as chemist Tom Nilges of the Technical University of Munich wrote in the same issue of Nature on the new manufacturing process he likens to a matryoshka doll, consisting of smaller and smaller units of material nested within one another, "this combined approach improves the thermoelectric performance of lead telluride to previously unattainable levels."
At those levels such thermoelectric devices might become practical in harvesting some of the exhaust heat from vehicles—such as marine tankers or trucks—and turning it into electricity. BMW and Ford are already testing similar thermoelectric material in cars. Or the devices could be used in high-heat metallurgical or glassmaking industries. And scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have even used such thermoelectric materials to build a device to turn the sun's heat more directly into electricity, rather than employing the vast arrays of mirrors of a conventional solar-thermal power plant.
Of course, both lead and tellurium are toxic, but nontoxic alternatives, such as zinc oxide, might prove feasible in future. At the very least, the next robotic rover to land on a foreign world could have a lot more juice.