The opportunity to use solid-state thermoelectrics for waste heat recovery has reinvigorated the field of thermoelectrics in tackling the challenges of energy sustainability. While thermoelectric generators have decades of proven reliability in space, from the 1960s to the present, terrestrial uses have so far been limited to niche applications on Earth because of a relatively low material efficiency. Lead telluride alloys were some of the first materials investigated and commercialized for generators but their full potential for thermoelectrics has only recently been revealed to be far greater than commonly believed. By reviewing some of the past and present successes of PbTe as a thermoelectric material we identify the issues for achieving maximum performance and successful band structure engineering strategies for further improvements that can be applied to other thermoelectric materials systems.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(11)70278-4