The increasing power demands of portable electronics and micro robotics has driven recent interest in millimeter-scale microgenerators. Many technologies (fuel cells, Stirling, thermoelectric, etc.) that potentially enable a portable hydrocarbon microgenerator are under active investigation. Hydrocarbon fuels have specific energies fifty times those of batteries, thus even a relatively inefficient generator can exceed the specific energy of batteries. We proposed, designed, and demonstrated a first-of-a-kind millimeter-scale thermophotovoltaic (TPV) system with a photonic crystal emitter. In a TPV system, combustion heats an emitter to incandescence and the resulting thermal radiation is converted to electricity by photovoltaic cells. Our approach uses a moderate temperature (1000–1200°C) metallic microburner coupled to a high emissivity, high selectivity photonic crystal selective emitter and low bandgap PV cells. This approach is predicted to be capable of up to 30% efficient fuel-to-electricity conversion within a millimeter-scale form factor. We have performed a robust experimental demonstration that validates the theoretical framework and the key system components, and present our results in the context of a TPV microgenerator. Although considerable technological barriers need to be overcome to realize a TPV microgenerator, we predict that 700–900 Wh/kg is possible with the current technology.

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