Ternary tellurium compounds and ternary selenium compounds may be used in fabricating thermoelectric devices with a thermoelectric figure of merit (ZT) of 1.5 or greater. Examples of such compounds include Tl.sub.2 SnTe.sub.5, Tl.sub.2 GeTe.sub.5, K.sub.2 SnTe.sub.5 and Rb.sub.2 SnTe.sub.5. These compounds have similar types of crystal lattice structures which include a first substructure with a (Sn, Ge) Te.sub.5 composition and a second substructure with chains of selected cation atoms. The second substructure includes selected cation atoms which interact with selected anion atoms to maintain a desired separation between the chains of the first substructure. The cation atoms which maintain the desired separation between the chains occupy relatively large electropositive sites in the resulting crystal lattice structure which results in a relatively low value for the lattice component of thermal conductivity (.kappa..sub.g). The first substructure of anion chains indicates significant anisotropy in the thermoelectric characteristics of the resulting semiconductor materials.
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The U.S. Government may have a paid-up license in this invention and the right in limited circumstances to require the patent owner to license others on reasonable terms as provided for by the terms of Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) No. ORNL 94-0324 awarded by the United States Department of Energy.