Introduction to Heat Pipes

Heat pipes are hollow metal pipes filled with a liquid coolant that moves heat by evaporating and condensing in an endless cycle. A Heat-pipe can be considered a passive heat pump, moving heat as a result of the laws of physics.

As the lower end of the Heat-pipe is exposed to heat, the coolant within it starts to evaporate, absorbing heat. As the coolant turns into vapor, it, and its heat-load, convect within the heat-pipe. The reduced molecular density forces the vaporized coolant upwards, where it is exposed to the cold end of the Heat pipe. The coolant then condenses back into a liquid state, releasing the latent heat. Since the rate of condensation increases with increased delta temperatures between the vapor and Heat pipe surface, the gaseous coolant automatically streams towards the coldest spot within the Heat pipe. As the coolant condenses, and its molecular density increases once more, gravitational forces pull the coolant towards the lower end of the Heat pipe. To aid this coolant cycle, improve its performance, and make it less dependent on the orientation of the Heat pipe towards earth gravitational center, modern Heat-pipes feature inner walls with a fine, capillary structure. The capillary surfaces within the Heat-pipe break the coolants surface tension, distributing it evenly throughout the structure. As soon as coolant evaporates on one end, the coolants surface tension automatically pulls in fresh coolant from the surrounding area. As a result of the self organizing streams of the coolant in both phases, heat is actively convecting through Heat pipes throughout the entire coolant cycle, at a rate unmatched by solid Heat spreaders and Heat sinks.



Heat pipes are a smart investment if you have a device or platform that needs any of the following support:

  1. Transfer of heat from one location to another. For example, many electronics use this to transfer heat from a chip to a remote heat sink.
  2. Transform heat from a high heat flux at the evaporator to a lower heat flux at the condenser, making it easier to remove overall heat with conventional methods such as liquid or air cooling. Heat fluxes of up to 1,000 W/cm2 can be transformed with custom vapor chambers.
  3. Provide an isothermal surface. Examples include operating multiple laser diodes at the same temperature, and providing very isothermal surfaces for temperature calibration.

There are some universal benefits of how a heat pipe works across almost all applications:

  1. High Effective Thermal Conductivity. Transfer heat over long distances, with minimal temperature drop.
  2. Passive operation. No moving parts, and require no energy input other than heat to operate.
  3. Isothermal operation. Very isothermal surfaces, with temperature variations as low as ± 5 mK.
  4. Long life with no maintenance. No moving parts that could wear out. The vacuum seal prevents liquid losses, and protective coatings can give each device a long-lasting guard against corrosion.
  5. Lower costs. By lowering the operating temperature, these devices can increase the Mean Time Between Failure (MT-BF) for electronic assemblies. In turn, this lowers the maintenance required, and the replacement costs. In H VAC systems, they can reduce the energy required for heating and air conditioning, with payback times of a few years.

Heat Transfer Limitations of Heat Pipes

Capillary Limit:

The ability of a particular capillary structure to provide the circulation for a given working fluid is limited. This limit is commonly called the capillary limitation or hydrodynamic limitation. The capillary limit is the most commonly encountered limitation in the operation of low-temperature heat pipes. It occurs when the pumping rate is not sufficient to provide enough liquid to the evaporator section. This is due to the fact that the sum of the liquid and vapor pressure drops exceed the maximum capillary pressure that the wick can sustain. The maximum capillary pressure for a given wick structure depends on the physical properties of the wick and working fluid. Any attempt to increase the heat transfer above the capillary limit will cause dry-out in the evaporator section, where a sudden increase in wall temperature along the evaporator section takes place.

Sonic Limit:

The evaporator and condenser sections of a heat pipe represent a vapor flow channel with mass addition and extraction due to the evaporation and condensation, respectively. The vapor velocity increases along the evaporator and reaches a maximum at the end of the evaporator section. The limitation of such a flow system is similar to that of a converging-diverging nozzle with a constant mass flow rate, where the evaporator exit corresponds to the throat of the nozzle. Therefore, one expects that the vapor velocity at that point cannot exceed the local speed of sound. This choked flow condition is called the sonic limitation. The sonic limit usually occurs either during heat pipe startup or during steady state operation when the heat transfer coefficient at the condenser is high. The sonic limit is usually associated with liquid-metal heat pipes due to high vapor velocities and low densities. Unlike the capillary limit, when the sonic limit is exceeded, it does not represent a serious failure. The sonic limitation corresponds to a given evaporator end cap temperature. Increasing the evaporator end cap temperature will increase this limit to a new higher sonic limit. The rate of heat transfer will not increase by decreasing the condenser temperature under the choked condition. Therefore, when the sonic limit is reached, further increases in the heat transfer rate can be realized only when the evaporator temperature increases. Operation of heat pipes with a heat rate close to or at the sonic limit results in a significant axial temperature drop along the heat pipe.

Boiling Limit:

If the radial heat flux in the evaporator section becomes too high, the liquid in the evaporator wick boils and the wall temperature becomes excessively high. The vapor bubbles that form in the wick prevent the liquid from wetting the pipe wall, which causes hot spots. If this boiling is severe, it dries out the wick in the evaporator, which is defined as the boiling limit. However, under a low or moderate radial heat flux, low intensity stable boiling is possible without causing dry-out. It should be noted that the boiling limitation is a radial heat flux limitation as compared to an axial heat flux limitation for the other heat pipe limits. However, since they are related through the evaporator surface area, the maximum radial heat flux limitation also specifies the maximum axial heat transport. The boiling limit is often associated with heat pipes of non-metallic working fluids. For liquid-metal heat pipes, the boiling limit is rarely seen.

Entrainment Limit:

A shear force exists at the liquid-vapor interface since the vapor and liquid move in opposite directions. At high relative velocities, droplets of liquid can be torn from the wick surface and entrained into the vapor flowing toward the condenser section. If the entrainment becomes too great, the evaporator will dry out. The heat transfer rate at which this occurs is called the entrainment limit. Entrainment can be detected by the sounds made by droplets striking the condenser end of the heat pipe. The entrainment limit is often associated with low or moderate temperature heat pipes with small diameters, or high temperature heat pipes when the heat input at the evaporator is high.

Vapor Pressure Limit:

At low operating temperatures, viscous forces may be dominant for the vapor moving flow down the heat pipe. For a long liquid-metal heat pipe, the vapor pressure at the condenser end may reduce to zero. The heat transport of the heat pipe may be limited under this condition. The vapor pressure limit (viscous limit) is encountered when a heat pipe operates at temperatures below its normal operating range, such as during startup from the frozen state. In this case, the vapor pressure is very small, with the condenser end cap pressure nearly zero.

Frozen Startup Limit:

During the startup process from the frozen state, the active length of the heat pipe is less than the total length, and the distance the liquid has to travel in the wick is less than that required for steady state operations. Therefore, the capillary limit will usually not occur during the startup process if the heat input is not very high and is not applied too abruptly. However, for heat pipes with an initially frozen working fluid, if the melting temperature of the working fluid and the heat capacities of the heat pipe container and wick are high, and the latent heat of evaporation and cross-sectional area of the wick are small, a frozen startup limit may occur due to the freezing out of vapor from the evaporation zone to the adiabatic or condensation zone.

Condenser Heat Transfer Limit:

In general, heat pipe condensers and the method of cooling the condenser should be designed such that the maximum heat rate capable of being transported by the heat pipe can be removed. However, in exceptional cases with high temperature heat pipes, appropriate condensers cannot be developed to remove the maximum heat capability of the heat pipe. Due to the presence of noncondensible gases, the effective length of the heat pipe is reduced during continuous operation. Therefore, the condenser is not used to its full capacity. In both cases, the heat transfer limitation can be due to the condenser limit.

Vapor Continuum Limit:

For heat pipes with very low operating temperatures, especially when the dimension of the heat pipe is very small such as micro heat pipes, the vapor flow in the heat pipe may be in the free molecular or rarefied condition. The heat transport capability under this condition is limited, and is called the vapor continuum limit.

Flooding Limit:

The flooding limit is the most common concern for long thermosyphons with large liquid fill ratios, large axial heat fluxes, and small radial heat fluxes. This limit occurs due to the instability of the liquid film generated by a high value of inter-facial shear, which is a result of the large vapor velocities induced by high axial heat fluxes. The vapor shear hold-up prevents the condensate from returning to the evaporator and leads to a flooding condition in the condenser section. This causes a partial dry-out of the evaporator, which results in wall temperature excursions or in limiting the operation of the system.

Heat pipe heat sink: