Norbert Elsner – 1933-2010

Norb Elsner 1933-2010We have lost one of the pioneers in Thermoelectrics. Norbert Elsner left us December 2, 2010. Norb was born and raised in Queens, New York. He graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in Metallurgical Engineering and later earned a Masters in Business Administration from Pepperdine University. Norb went into the Navy after Virgina Tech as the Aircraft Maintenance Officer for a fighter squadron  embarked on the Aircraft Carrier, Philippine Sea for 2 tours in the Korean War Zone. Norb served in The Naval Reserve for thirty years and retired as a Captain. While on Active Duty he met Laverne Zowada at a dance at the Officers Club in San Diego and married her a year later. His first job after Navy Active Duty was as a Research Engineer with Solar turbines developing braze alloys for super alloys, Titanium alloys and refractory metals for turbine applications. 

In 1961 Norb transferred to  General Atomics where was responsible for the management of thermoelectric energy conversion systems..  He was a major contributor to the basic technology and application of several thermoelectric alloy systems and the development of concepts in advanced generator designs.  Norb was the principal investigator for numerous thermoelectric devices and materials programs.  Mr. Elsner was awarded a  DOE citation for major contributions to the Voyager I and II SiGe thermoelectric generators that are still functioning and recently left the Solar System after 30 years of operation!  He led a team of scientists in the identification and fix of the SiGe-insulation incompatibility between the SiGe thermoelectric alloys and the insulation materials. While at General Atomics he worked on SiGe-based alloys and their fabrication, the PbTe-based alloys, and TAGS in space designed generators of high specific power, skutterudites, and the selenide compounds (Nd,Gd)Se1.5 and (Cu,Ag)2Se.  He was principal contributor to the materials and process technology for the first nuclear-thermoelectric powered satellite (TRANSIT) using radiation coupling between the heat source and the converter.  He  also contributed significantly to fabrication, coating, and characterizing refractory (Mo, Ta, W) and noble (Pt, Rh) metals for containment of PuO2 which supported the development of nuclear batteries for satellites and heart pacemakers.  Mr. Elsner was also involved developing high temperature (800-900°C) metal-ceramic seals for long life thermionic power diodes and  made contributions to the development of thermophotovoltaic generators and low activation ceramic materials for the first walls of thermonuclear fusion reactors.

In 1985 left General Atomics to start what has become Hi-Z Technologies and which is now located across the street from the Miramar , then the “Top Gun” Naval Air Station, where his Squadron was based when not deployed at sea. For 25 years Norb was President, CEO, and Chairman of Hi-Z Technology, Inc.  and as such, he was responsible for HI-Z’s technical and operational management.  At Hi-Z he focused on developing low-cost Thermoelectrics for numerous waste heat applications and stand-alone thermoelectric generators for a range of applications. In 1994 he built and tested the first thermoelectric generator to directly convert vehicle engine waste heat to electricity. Today every major automobile manufacturer is working on this concept. Hi-Z thermoelectric modules were recently tested in thermoelectric demonstration generators at BMW, VW as well as several other vehicle OEM’s (original equipment manufacturers). Norb’s last passion was  the nanoscale  multilayer quantum well thermoelectrics which has demonstrated that the various alternating materials of Si/SiGe, Si/SiC and B4C/B9C can increase conversion efficiencies several fold,.

Norb’s sense of humor was legendary and it was coupled with  enthusiasm and ability to explain complex engineering challenges. He was an avid newspaper reader and loved conversing on the topics of the day. His major vice was an insatiable desire for desserts especially after dinner with Laverne and friends. He would, on more than one occasion, catch 40 winks right after lunch at Conferences, particularly with monotone speakers.

He was a genuine 5 star friend and he will be greatly  missed by the Thermoelectric Community!

John W. Fairbanks
Technology Development Manager – Thermoelectrics
Department of Energy (EE-2G)
1000 Independence Ave SW
Washington, DC 20585


Another obituary for Norbert Elsner was published in San Diego Union-Tribune on December 9, 2010