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Open Access Nano Review

Determining factors of thermoelectric properties of semiconductor nanowires

Denis O Demchenko1*, Peter D Heinz2 and Byounghak Lee2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Physics, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA 23284, USA

2 Department of Physics, Texas State University, San Marcos, TX 78666, USA

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Nanoscale Research Letters 2011, 6:502  doi:10.1186/1556-276X-6-502

Published: 19 August 2011


It is widely accepted that low dimensionality of semiconductor heterostructures and nanostructures can significantly improve their thermoelectric efficiency. However, what is less well understood is the precise role of electronic and lattice transport coefficients in the improvement. We differentiate and analyze the electronic and lattice contributions to the enhancement by using a nearly parameter-free theory of the thermoelectric properties of semiconductor nanowires. By combining molecular dynamics, density functional theory, and Boltzmann transport theory methods, we provide a complete picture for the competing factors of thermoelectric figure of merit. As an example, we study the thermoelectric properties of ZnO and Si nanowires. We find that the figure of merit can be increased as much as 30 times in 8-Å-diameter ZnO nanowires and 20 times in 12-Å-diameter Si nanowires, compared with the bulk. Decoupling of thermoelectric contributions reveals that the reduction of lattice thermal conductivity is the predominant factor in the improvement of thermoelectric properties in nanowires. While the lattice contribution to the efficiency enhancement consistently becomes larger with decreasing size of nanowires, the electronic contribution is relatively small in ZnO and disadvantageous in Si.