Heat Pipe: Definition, Components, Types, Applications, and Factors That Affect Its Performance
Learn more about these pipes and the various types available.
Heat pipes are effective methods to move heat from one location to another within closed-loop systems. They are used as heat recovery systems, thermal control systems for spacecraft, and electronic-device cooling components. A heat pipe is a passive device that transmits heat using capillary action and the laws of thermodynamics. It is made up of a working fluid and a wick structure all contained within an otherwise evacuated tube. The tube’s material should have high thermal conductivity and the wick structure must move the working fluid from the cold end to the hot end of the heat pipe.
The fluid within a heat pipe needs to have a low boiling point and a high latent heat of vaporization. Copper piping is often paired with water and aluminum with ammonia. Heat pipes are common in HVAC systems, electronics, and aerospace vehicles. Some variables, including the wick structure, working fluid, and operating temperature, can impact how well heat pipes perform. This article will define heat pipes and outline the components, types, applications, and factors that affect their performance
A heat pipe is a technology that uses the evaporation and condensation of a working fluid to move heat from one place to another. Heat pipes are usually used in spacecraft, electronics, and other fields where space, mass, or energy consumption are restricted.
A heat pipe's main job is to efficiently transfer heat from a heat source to a heat sink. It can transfer a lot of heat even if the temperature difference is minimal because a phase change is part of the process.
Every heat pipe needs a working fluid — usually water or a refrigerant. The fluid absorbs heat, vaporizes, and then moves to the cooler end of the pipe where it releases heat by condensing back into a liquid. This ongoing cycle enables it to transfer heat over considerable distances. Systems for electronic cooling and heat recovery tend to utilize heat pipes.
The following parts make up a heat pipe:
The item in a heat pipe known as the evaporator is responsible for absorbing heat from the source and vaporizing the working fluid. The vaporized working fluid will then transfer heat from the source to the condenser.
When the working fluid releases heat and condenses back into a liquid, it does so in the condenser section of the heat pipe which is in contact with the heat sink.
The working fluid is typically transported from the cooler end of the heat pipe to the hotter end via capillary action with the aid of the wick structure that lines the interior walls of the heat pipe. Sintered metal powders, woven metal mesh, and porous ceramics are examples of typical wick materials.
An example of a heat pipe is shown in Figure 1 below:
Heat pipe example.
Image Credit: Shutterstock.com/mirounga
The image shows a copper heat pipe with fins that improve heat dissipation. It is a metal cylindrical tube with an internal wick structure to help move liquid from one end of the pipe to the other, allowing for effective heat transfer.
A heat pipe is an enclosed cylindrical metal tube, usually made of copper or aluminum, that contains a wick structure. Heat is transferred efficiently when a working fluid flows from one end to the other.
Heat pipe technology is a passive heat-transfer system that works in a closed loop to transfer heat from a hot source to a cooler sink. It works by vaporizing a working fluid inside a tightly sealed tube, then moving the heat to a cooler area where the fluid condenses and releases the heat. This style of a cooling system is useful in, for example: space technology, refrigeration, and electronic devices.
Heat pipes come in several different styles:
Heat is transferred to the fluid using a wickless structure in vapor chamber heat pipes. They are employed in LED lighting, CPUs, and electronics. While these versions have uniform temperature distribution and the ability to cool multiple devices, they are expensive and require that the evaporator and condenser be on a single flat plane. The absence of a wick is the primary distinction between vapor chamber heat pipes and conventional heat pipes.
Variable conductance heat pipes (VCHPs) are heat-transfer systems that move heat using a working fluid and a non-condensable gas (NCG). VCHPs are used in energy systems, spacecraft, and electronics. They have benefits like high heat transfer rates, passive operation, and orientation flexibility. They do, however, come with a few drawbacks such as high manufacturing costs and a more complex design than conventional heat pipes. In contrast to a conventional heat pipe, every VCHP has a variable conductance mechanism that enables it to control the rate of heat transfer based on the difference in temperature between the evaporator and condenser sections.
A diode heat pipe is a heat transfer device that utilizes a diode to control the heat flow direction. It comes in two types: Liquid Trap Diodes and Vapor Trap Diodes. They are used when heat flow in the reverse direction needs to be prevented. Furthermore, they are employed for the thermal control of spacecraft and electronics. High heat transfer rates and low power consumption are benefits; a narrow temperature range and sensitivity to orientation are drawbacks.
A thermosyphon heat pipe is a passive heat transfer device that uses gravity to circulate a working fluid, usually in a closed loop. It is frequently used in solar water heaters and for cooling electronics. Its benefits include ease of use, reliability, and affordability, while its drawbacks include a lack of flexibility and sensitivity to orientation. The mechanism used by conventional heat pipes and thermosyphons to transfer condensate from the condenser to the evaporator is the primary distinction between them. The condensate is transported by a wick in heat pipelines that uses capillary action, while gravitational forces are used in thermosyphons.
A loop heat pipe is a form of heat transfer device that uses a two-phase mechanism to extract heat from a source and passively transmit it to a condenser or radiator. LHPs can operate against gravity and provide dependable performance over greater lengths than heat pipes can. Heat is transferred from a heat source to a heat sink efficiently and without any energy input. Unfortunately, LHPs are complex and expensive. LHPs are employed in industrial operations, electronics cooling, and thermal control of spacecraft.
A passive, two-phase heat transfer device called an oscillating or pulsating heat pipe (PHP) moves heat through capillary action and oscillatory motion. It has uses in the automotive, aerospace, and electronics industries. Its benefits include affordability, low thermal resistance, ease of construction, and effective thermal performance. Numerous consumer electronics such as smartphones, tablets, and gaming consoles employ these heat pipes. They can help dump the heat that they produce, enhancing their functionality and lifespan. One drawback is the restricted working range. The use of oscillatory motion, which is thermally driven and combined with capillary forces, distinguishes PHP from conventional heat pipes.
Examples of heat pipe applications are listed below:
High-performance computer processors and graphics cards are often cooled with the help of heat pipes. They can enhance the effectiveness and lifespans of these components by removing heat that would otherwise damage sensitive circuits.
In aircraft and spacecraft, heat pipes are used to move heat from high-temperature regions to low-temperature regions. They control temperatures and keep machinery from overheating or freezing. Heat rejection on spacecraft is complicated by the fact that they cannot dissipate energy through conduction or convection, so they’re limited to radiative cooling and heat pipes shunt thermal energy to the radiators. High thermal conductivity, low weight, and dependability are all advantages in the aerospace setting.
LED lighting systems remove the diodes’ thermal energy using heat pipes. The heat pipe increases the LED's efficiency and lifespan and reduces its overall energy draw.
Energy systems employ heat pipes to effectively move heat from one place to another. They are advantageous because they require little outside energy to operate, have high thermal conductivity, and can move heat over a large area with little thermal loss.
In medical devices, heat pipes are used to transfer heat away from critical components that may be damaged by overheating. Improved dependability, minimal maintenance, and higher performance are all advantages of heat pipes.
Numerous consumer electronics such as smartphones, tablets, and gaming consoles employ heat pipes. They can help remove these devices' generated heat, enhancing their functionality and longevity.
In solar thermal systems, heat pipes are used to move heat from the solar collector to the heat storage device. The systems are most efficient when this heat transfer process loses as little energy as possible. Heat pipes are highly effective, require minimal maintenance, and have long lifespans.
Heat pipes are found in many CPU coolers such as those made by Noctua. Heat is moved from the CPU to the radiator fins with the help of heat pipes so that the fan can dissipate it.
In 3D printing, heat pipes are used to control the hot nozzle’s temperature, particularly in FFF and other extrusion-based printing techniques. Temperature fluctuations are minimized thanks to the heat pipe's ability to absorb and transfer heat away from the hot tip. This enables more reliable printing and better print quality.
Several factors can affect heat pipe performance, including:
The amount of heat input significantly impacts the heat pipe's performance. When the input is too high, a heat pipe may become saturated, making it less efficient.
The amount of heat that can be transferred through the pipe depends on its operating temperature, which has an impact on how well the pipe performs in any given situation. Up to a certain point, higher temperatures can improve performance; however, once that point is crossed, the pipe's efficiency begins to decline.
The heat sink’s design can greatly influence the effectiveness of the heat pipe. Elements like fin spacing, fin thickness, and the heat sink’s overall size and shape can impact the device’s ability to dissipate heat. For more information, see our Heat Sink guide.
A heat pipe's performance can be greatly impacted by its orientation. Heat pipes are usually vertically or horizontally oriented to function effectively. A heat pipe's performance may be compromised and it might not be able to transmit heat efficiently if used in a position other than the one for which it was intended.
The operating temperature range, thermal conductivity, and vapor pressure of a heat pipe are all influenced by the working fluid, which has an impact on how well it works. The characteristics of different fluids can either improve or restrict the heat pipe's ability to transfer heat.
The wick structure affects a heat pipe's performance by controlling the flow of working fluid, increasing its surface area, and enhancing capillary action. The wick structure is essential because it directly influences how well the fluids move within the heat pipe.
Thermal resistance can reduce a heat pipe's ability to transfer heat. Lower thermal resistance leads to improved heat transfer. It is a crucial factor as it impacts the thermal conductivity of the heat pipe system.
The heat pipe’s size and shape affect its functionality because these factors determine the capillary pressure and heat transfer area, which in turn influence fluid flow and heat transfer characteristics. Larger dimensions and complicated shapes can enhance performance but also create manufacturing and operational difficulties.
Environmental variables like temperature, pressure, and gravity have an impact on how well a heat pipe works by changing the fluid properties and flow dynamics inside the pipe. The rate of heat transfer and heat-dissipation effectiveness may change as a result of these factors.
Some of the benefits of heat pipes include:
- Enhanced cooling efficiency: Heat pipes are excellent at transferring heat away from a heat source. Electronic and other devices that generate too much heat can thus be efficiently cooled enough to operate properly.
- Reduced energy consumption: Heat pipes minimize energy consumption in electronic devices and other applications because they require little (or often zero) energy input to function.
- Increased lifespan of electronic components: Heat pipes can help increase the lifespans of delicate circuitry and prevent damage caused by overheating by efficiently transferring heat away from electronic components.
- Minimal weight and space requirements: Heat pipes are compact and lightweight. They are an ideal choice for devices where space and weight are limited.
- Improved temperature regulation: Heat pipes can help maintain a stable temperature by transferring excess heat away from the heat source. They prevent temperature fluctuations that can damage electronic components.
- Silent operation: Heat pipes are passive cooling systems. They operate quietly because they do not need any mechanical parts like fans or pumps.
Heat pipes do come with some basic limitations by nature:
- Heat transfer capacity limitation: Heat pipes may not be suitable for high-power applications due to their limited ability to transfer heat. Such circumstances might call for additional cooling mechanisms.
- Orientation sensitivity: Heat pipes are sensitive to their orientation. They may not work efficiently when positioned incorrectly.
- Environmental factors sensitivity: Heat pipes are also highly sensitive to environmental factors such as pressure and temperature which can affect their performance.
- Limited temperature range: Heat pipes have a limited temperature range over which they operate effectively. Outside this range, their performance may degrade.
- Limited wick structure compatibility: Their use may be restricted in some circumstances because of restrictions on the types of wick structures that function with heat pipes.
- Manufacturing complexity: Heat pipes may not be widely used in some industries because of how difficult they are to manufacture.
Yes, heat pipes are necessary for some 3D printers. Heat pipes help to dissipate the heat produced during printing, preventing the extrusion nozzle from overheating and enhancing print consistency and quality.
This article presented heat pipes, explained what they are, and discussed their various applications and types. To learn more about heat pipes, contact a Xometry representative.
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