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"Looking back through history, I see no evidence for humanity making the best of things, and I think it's a pretty safe bet that's an on-going trend."
- Richard Morgan

Thermlectrium  
  An alloy that turns heat directly into electricity.  

Scientist Malcom Mackay needed to get close to the sun to perform some experiments, but how can you handle the heat? Perhaps it would be possible to convert that heat to electricity?

It was a dull, silvery gray, rather heavy, being nickel-iron-cobalt-carbon steel...

Thermlectrium is a magnetic alloy, the unique property being that its crystals are of almost exactly uniform size.

In any permanent magnet, the crystals are tiny individual magnets, all lined up with their north poles pointing the same way. In magnetized steel, if the bar is heated, the heat-motion of the molecules turns some of them around, with the result that the magnetism is lost.

In thermlectrium, even at low temperatures, the crystals turn, but they all turn together. The result is the same as though the bar had been inverted. A current is induced in the surrounding coil. And, of course, the energy which inverts the magnet, and drives the current of electricity, is the molecular motion known as heat. Heat was conquered!

From Blindness, by John W. Campbell.
Published by Astounding Science Fiction in 1935
Additional resources -

And the end result? The free energy present in the atmosphere could be harvested by thermlectrium - "every home, every store, every man, has his private thermelectrium element."

To see some recent research on this very thing, see the article on Nanostructured thermoelectric devices.

Thanks to reader Winchell Chung for suggesting this item.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from Blindness
  More Ideas and Technology by John W. Campbell
  Tech news articles related to Blindness
  Tech news articles related to works by John W. Campbell

Thermlectrium-related news articles:
  - Nanostructured Thermoelectric Devices (And John W. Campbell, Jr.)

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