For decades, physicists have toyed with ways to convert heat into electricity directly. Materials known as thermoelectrics use temperature differences to drive electrons from one end to another. The displaced electrons create a voltage that can in turn be used to power other things, much like a battery. Such materials have found niche applications: the Curiosity rover trundling about on the surface of Mars, for example, uses thermoelectrics to turn heat from its plutonium power source into electricity. That doesn't mean that the material is ready to be used on the next Mars rover, however: NASA has been looking at similar materials for future space missions, but the agency is not yet convinced that they are ready for primetime."
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