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Chemical and Process Engineering Resources

What is a Heat Pipe?

Nov 08 2010 01:20 PM | Chris Haslego in Other Topics ----- Share this topic:
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A heat pipe is a simple device that can quickly transfer heat from one point to another. They are often referred to as the "superconductors" of heat as they possess an extra ordinary heat transfer capacity and rate with almost no heat loss.

The idea of heat pipes was first suggested by R.S.Gaugler in 1942. However, it was not until 1962, when G.M.Grover invented it, that its remarkable properties were appreciated and serious development began.

It consists of a sealed aluminum or copper container whose inner surfaces have a capillary wicking material. A heat pipe is similar to a thermosyphon. It differs from a thermosyphon by virtue of its ability to transport heat against gravity by an evaporation-condensation cycle with the help of porous capillaries that form the wick. The wick provides the capillary driving force to return the condensate to the evaporator. The quality and type of wick usually determines the performance of the heat pipe, for this is the heart of the product. Different types of wicks are used depending on the application for which the heat pipe is being used.

Design Considerations

The three basic components of a heat pipe are:

  1. the container
  2. the working fluid
  3. the wick or capillary structure


The function of the container is to isolate the working fluid from the outside environment. It has to therefore be leak-proof, maintain the pressure differential across its walls, and enable transfer of heat to take place from and into the working fluid.

Selection of the container material depends on many factors. These are as follows:

  • Compatibility (both with working fluid and external environment)
  • Strength to weight ratio
  • Thermal conductivity
  • Ease of fabrication, including welding, machineability and ductility
  • Porosity
  • Wettability

Most of the above are self-explanatory. A high strength to weight ratio is more important in spacecraft applications. The material should be non-porous to prevent the diffusion of vapor. A high thermal conductivity ensures minimum temperature drop between the heat source and the wick.

Working Fluid

A first consideration in the identification of a suitable working fluid is the operating vapour temperature range. Within the approximate temperature band, several possible working fluids may exist, and a variety of characteristics must be examined in order to determine the most acceptable of these fluids for the application considered. The prime requirements are:

  • compatibility with wick and wall materials
  • good thermal stability
  • wettability of wick and wall materials
  • vapor pressure not too high or low over the operating temperature range
  • high latent heat
  • high thermal conductivity
  • low liquid and vapor viscosities
  • high surface tension
  • acceptable freezing or pour point

The selection of the working fluid must also be based on thermodynamic considerations which are concerned with the various limitations to heat flow occurring within the heat pipe like, viscous, sonic, capillary, entrainment and nucleate boiling levels.

In heat pipe design, a high value of surface tension is desirable in order to enable the heat pipe to operate against gravity and to generate a high capillary driving force. In addition to high surface tension, it is necessary for the working fluid to wet the wick and the container material i.e. contact angle should be zero or very small. The vapor pressure over the operating temperature range must be sufficiently great to avoid high vapor velocities, which tend to setup large temperature gradient and cause flow instabilities.

A high latent heat of vaporization is desirable in order to transfer large amounts of heat with minimum fluid flow, and hence to maintain low pressure drops within the heat pipe. The thermal conductivity of the working fluid should preferably be high in order to minimize the radial temperature gradient and to reduce the possibility of nucleate boiling at the wick or wall surface. The resistance to fluid flow will be minimized by choosing fluids with low values of vapor and liquid viscosities. Tabulated below are a few mediums with their useful ranges of temperature.

Table 1: Heat Pipe Mediums
Point at


Helium-271-261-271 to -269
Nitrogen-210-196-203 to -160
Ammonia-78-33-60 to 100
Acetone-95570 to 120
Methanol-986410 to 130
Flutec PP2-507610 to 160
Ethanol-112780 to 130
Water010030 to 200
Toluene-9511050 to 200
Mercury-39361250 to 650
Sodium98892600 to 1200
Lithium17913401000 to 1800
Silver96022121800 to 2300

Wick or Capillary Structure

It is a porous structure made of materials like steel, alumunium, nickel or copper in various ranges of pore sizes. They are fabricated using metal foams, and more particularly felts, the latter being more frequently used. By varying the pressure on the felt during assembly, various pore sizes can be produced. By incorporating removable metal mandrels, an arterial structure can also be molded in the felt.

Fibrous materials, like ceramics, have also been used widely. They generally have smaller pores. The main disadvantage of ceramic fibres is that, they have little stiffness and usually require a continuos support by a metal mesh. Thus while the fibre itself may be chemically compatible with the working fluids, the supporting materials may cause problems. More recently, interest has turned to carbon fibres as a wick material. Carbon fibre filaments have many fine longitudinal grooves on their surface, have high capillary pressures and are chemically stable. A number of heat pipes that have been successfully constructed using carbon fibre wicks seem to show a greater heat transport capability.

The prime purpose of the wick is to generate capillary pressure to transport the working fluid from the condenser to the evaporator. It must also be able to distribute the liquid around the evaporator section to any area where heat is likely to be received by the heat pipe. Often these two functions require wicks of different forms. The selection of the wick for a heat pipe depends on many factors, several of which are closely linked to the properties of the working fluid.

The maximum capillary head generated by a wick increases with decrease in pore size. The wick permeability increases with increasing pore size. Another feature of the wick, which must be optimized, is its thickness. The heat transport capability of the heat pipe is raised by increasing the wick thickness. The overall thermal resistance at the evaporator also depends on the conductivity of the working fluid in the wick. Other necessary properties of the wick are compatibility with the working fluid and wettability.

The most common types of wicks that are used are as follows:

Sintered Powder

This process will provide high power handling, low temperature gradients and high capillary forces for anti-gravity applications. The photograph shows a complex sintered wick with several vapor channels and small arteries to increase the liquid flow rate. Very tight bends in the heat pipe can be achieved with this type of structure.

Grooved Tube

The small capillary driving force generated by the axial grooves is adequate for low power heat pipes when operated horizontally, or with gravity assistance. The tube can be readily bent. When used in conjunction with screen mesh the performance can be considerably enhanced.

Screen Mesh

This type of wick is used in the majority of the products and provides readily variable characteristics in terms of power transport and orientation sensitivity, according to the number of layers and mesh counts used.

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