The daily variation in air temperature is large compared with the temperature changes a short distance below the surface of the ground. In theory, a heat engine can be arranged to produce electricity from this temperature difference. In practice, the thermal efficiency of such a device will be low because of the small temperature differences involved. One example of such an energy harvesting device that can produce a small amount of electrical power uses a thermoelectric generator operating between the air and ground temperatures. The low thermal efficiency means that accurately predicting thermal resistances throughout the device and at the air-side and ground-side heat exchangers is critical to the creation of a useful device. Advantages of this device include high reliability, no acoustic emissions, low visibility, significant night-time power production, ruggedness, and long life. With appropriate external power conditioning components, the device could be used to power remote sensors and communications systems. The design of a pair of milliwatt-scale ground source heat engines is described. The devices were fabricated using custom heat exchangers and off-the-shelf thermoelectric modules and other supplies. Both systems were tested over an extended period in order to quantitatively assess effects of sunlight and precipitation on system performance and life. Exhaustive analysis of air-side average heat transfer coefficients, system thermal resistances, and ground-side thermal resistances provide quantitative design information for future applications. Finned and unfinned versions of the device permit assessment of fin performance on both ground-side and air-side heat transfer.

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