Thermoelectric cooling uses the Peltier effect to create a heat flux between the junction of two different types of materials. A Peltier cooler, heater, or thermoelectric heat pump is a solid-state active heat pump which transfers heat from one side of the device to the other, with consumption of electrical energy, depending on the direction of the current. Such an instrument is also called a Peltier device, Peltier heat pump, solid state refrigerator, or thermoelectric cooler (TEC). The Peltier device is a heat pump: when direct current runs through it, heat is moved from one side to the other. Therefore it can be used either for heating or for cooling (refrigeration), although in practice the main application is cooling. It can also be used as a temperature controller that either heats or cools. This technology is far less commonly applied to refrigeration than vapor-compression refrigeration is. The main advantages of a Peltier cooler (compared to a vapor-compression refrigerator) are its lack of moving parts or circulating liquid, and its small size and flexible shape (form factor). Its main disadvantage is that it cannot simultaneously have low cost and high power efficiency. Many researchers and companies are trying to develop Peltier coolers that are both cheap and efficient. (See Thermoelectric materials.) A Peltier cooler can also be used as a thermoelectric generator. When operated as a cooler, a voltage is applied across the device, and as a result, a difference in temperature will build up between the two sides. When operated as a generator, one side of the device is heated to a temperature greater then the other side, and as a result, a difference in voltage will build up between the two sides (the Seebeck effect). However, a well-designed Peltier cooler will be a mediocre thermoelectric generator and vice-versa, due to different design and packaging requirements.
Peltier devices are commonly used in camping and portable coolers and for cooling electronic components and small instruments. Some electronic equipment intended for military use in the field is thermoelectrically cooled. The cooling effect of Peltier heat pumps can also be used to extract water from the air in dehumidifiers. With feedback circuity, peltiers can be used to implement highly stable temperature controllers that keep desired temperature within +/-0.01 Celsius. Such stability may be used in precise laser applications to avoid laser wavelength drifting as environment temperature changes. Peltier elements are a common component in thermal cyclers, used for the synthesis of DNA by polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a common molecular biological technique which requires the rapid heating and cooling of the reaction mixture for denaturation, primer annealing and enzymatic synthesis cycles. The effect is used in satellites and spacecraft to counter the effect of direct sunlight on one side of a craft by dissipating the heat over the cold shaded side, whereupon the heat is dissipated by thermal radiation into space. Photon detectors such as CCDs in astronomical telescopes or very high-end digital cameras are often cooled down with Peltier elements. This reduces dark counts due to thermal noise. A dark count occurs when a pixel generates an electron because of a thermal fluctuation rather than because it has received a photon. On digital photos taken at low light these occur as speckles (or "pixel noise"). Thermoelectric coolers can be used to cool computer components to keep temperatures within design limits, or to maintain stable functioning when overclocking. However, due to low efficiency, much more heat is generated than normally, necessitating a very large and noisy fan or a liquid cooling system. A Peltier cooler with a heat sink or waterblock can cool a chip to well below ambient temperature. In fiber optic applications, where the wavelength of a laser or a component is highly dependent on temperature, Peltier coolers are used along with a thermistor in a feedback loop to maintain a constant temperature and thereby stabilize the wavelength of the device.