What is a Thermoelectric Cooler?

B. Turner

A thermoelectric cooler is a device that uses electricity to cool or refrigerate a space. These coolers operate based on the Peltier principle, which states that a current passed through a thermoelectric device will transfer heat into or out of the device. Rather than rely on standard refrigerant, a thermoelectric cooler absorbs heat similar to a heat pump. When a direct current passes into the device, it expels heat from inside of the space to outside. While a thermoelectric cooler can be used for both heating and cooling, it's much more common to find these devices used for cooling.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

One of the most basic applications for thermoelectric cooling is in portable food and drink storage. Buyers purchase small units to keep food and drinks cold during cookouts, tailgate parties, and camping trips. Many of these coolers are designed to plug into a car cigarette lighter and draw power from the vehicle. Others require a separate power supply that can be plugged into a standard wall outlet.

As research into thermoelectric cooler technology continues, scientists are developing new ways to use these principles for fields other than food storage. This technology is often used to keep electrical and mechanical equipment cool, which helps extend the life of these systems. A thermoelectric cooler system can also be used to maintain required temperatures for aircraft or space satellites. Finally, microscopic versions can be used inside of computer chips to direct heat energy away from delicate circuits.

The primary advantage to thermoelectric cooling is its portability and small size. These systems require no complex refrigeration equipment and are much easier to maintain than standard cooling systems. They offer a high degree of temperature control for precision cooling, and produce very little noise. Thermoelectric coolers don't require refrigerant, so they also pose less environmental risk than other cooling systems.

When it comes to food and drink storage, these coolers offer the advantage of keeping food cool without the use of ice. They can be used long term, compared to ice, which melts relatively quickly. There's also less cleanup and mess involved because of the lack of melted ice to deal with.

Buyers should be aware that a thermoelectric cooler will generally cost much more than any other types of portable cooler. Advanced systems also come with a higher price tag than more traditional cooling methods. Thermoelectric cooling is also relatively inefficient compared to refrigerant-based models, which could result in higher operating costs over time.

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