Heat Pipe

Heat Pipe

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 & rate with almost no heat loss.


A heat pipe is a heat transfer mechanism that can transport large quantities of heat with a very small difference in temperature between the hotter and colder interfaces.

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 & 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.

Inside a heat pipe, at the hot interface a fluid turns to vapour and the gas naturally flows and condenses on the cold interface. The liquid falls or is moved by capillary action back to the hot interface to evaporate again and repeat the cycle.

Structure, Design and Construction

A typical heat pipe consists of a sealed pipe or tube made of a material with high thermal conductivity such as copper or aluminium. A vacuum pump is used to remove all air from the empty heat pipe, and then the pipe is filled with a fraction of a percent by volume of working fluid, (or coolant), chosen to match the operating temperature. Some example fluids are water, ethanol, acetone, sodium, or mercury. Due to the partial vacuum that is near or below the vapor pressure of the fluid, some of the fluid will be in the liquid phase and some will be in the gas phase. Having a vacuum eliminates the need for the working gas to diffuse through another gas and so the bulk transfer of the vapour to the cold end of the heat pipe is at the speed of the moving mollecules. The only practical limit to the rate of heat transfer is the speed with which the gas can be condensed to a liquid at the cold end.

Inside the pipe's walls, an optional wick structure exerts a capillary pressure on the liquid phase of the working fluid. This is typically a sintered metal powder or a series of grooves parallel to the pipe axis, but it may be any material capable of exerting capillary pressure on the condensed liquid to wick it back to the heated end. The heat pipe may not need a wick structure if gravity or some other source of acceleration is sufficient to overcome surface tension and cause the condensed liquid to flow back to the heated end.

A heat pipe is not a thermosiphon, because there is no siphon. Thermosiphons transfer heat by single-phase convection. (See also: Perkins Tube, after Jacob Perkins.)

Heat pipes contain no mechanical moving parts and typically require no maintenance, though non-condensing gases (that diffuse through the pipe's walls, result from breakdown of the working fluid, or exist as impurities in the materials) may eventually reduce the pipe's effectiveness at transferring heat. This is significant when the working fluid's vapour pressure is low.

The materials chosen depend on the temperature conditions in which the heat pipe must operate, with coolants ranging from liquid helium for extremely low temperature applications (2–4 K) to mercury (523–923 K) & sodium (873–1473 K) and even indium (2000–3000 K) for extremely high temperatures. The vast majority of heat pipes for low temperature applications use some combination of ammonia (213–373 K), alcohol (methanol (283–403 K) or ethanol (273–403 K)) or water (303–473 K) as working fluid. Since the heat pipe contains a vacuum, the working fluid will boil and hence take up latent heat at well below its boiling point at atmospheric pressure. Water, for instance, will boil at just above 273 K (0 centigrade) and so can start to effectively tranfer latent heat at this low temperature.

The advantage of heat pipes is their great efficiency in transferring heat. They are a much better heat conductor than an equivalent cross-section of solid copper. A heat flux of more than 230 MW/m² has been recorded (nearly four times the heat flux at the surface of the sun).

Active control of heat flux can be effected by adding a variable volume liquid reservoir to the evaporator section. Variable conductance heat pipes employ a large reservoir of inert immiscible gas attached to the condensing section. Varying the gas reservoir pressure changes the volume of gas charged to the condenser which in turn limits the area available for vapor condensation. Thus a wider range of heat fluxes and temperature gradients can be accommodated with a single design.

A modified heat pipe with a reservoir having no capillary connection to the heat pipe wick at the evaporator end can also be used as a thermal diode. This heat pipe will transfer heat in one direction, acting as an insulator in the other.

By limiting the quantity of working fluid in a heat pipe, inherent safety is obtained. Water expands 1600 times when it vapourizes. In a water containing heat pipe if the water is limited to a 1600th of the volume of the heat pipe, the pressure within the pipe up to 100 C is limited to one atmosphere. Calculations can be made to ensure that the pressure is within the limits of the pipe strength at the highest possible working temperature of the device.

Flat heat pipes

Thin planar heat pipes (heat spreaders) have the same primary components as tubular heat pipes. These components are a hermetically sealed hollow vessel, a working fluid, and a closed-loop capillary recirculation system.

Compared to a one-dimensional tubular heat pipe, the width of a two-dimensional heat pipe allows an adequate cross section for heat flow even with a very thin device. These thin planar heat pipes are finding their way into “height sensitive” applications, such as notebook computers, and surface mount circuit board cores. It is possible to produce flat heat pipes as thin as 0.5 mm (thinner than a credit card).

Heat transfer

Heat pipes employ evaporative cooling to transfer thermal energy from one point to another by the evaporation and condensation of a working fluid or coolant. Heat pipes rely on a temperature difference between the ends of the pipe, and cannot lower temperatures at either end beyond the ambient temperature (hence they tend to equalise the temperature within the pipe).

When one end of the heat pipe is heated the working fluid inside the pipe at that end evaporates and increases the vapour pressure inside the cavity of the heat pipe. The latent heat of evaporation absorbed by the vaporisation of the working fluid reduces the temperature at the hot end of the pipe.

The vapour pressure over the hot liquid working fluid at the hot end of the pipe is higher than the equilibrium vapour pressure over condensing working fluid at the cooler end of the pipe, and this pressure difference drives a rapid mass transfer to the condensing end where the excess vapour condenses, releases its latent heat, and warms the cool end of the pipe. Non-condensing gases (caused by contamination for instance) in the vapour impede the gas flow and reduce the effectiveness of the heat pipe, particularly at low temperatures, where vapour pressures are low. The velocity of molecules in a gas is approximately the speed of sound and in the absence of non condensing gases, this is the upper velocity with which they could travel in the heat pipe. In practice, the speed of the vapour through the heat pipe is dependent on the rate of condensation at the cold end.

The condensed working fluid then flows back to the hot end of the pipe. In the case of vertically-oriented heat pipes the fluid may be moved by the force of gravity. In the case of heat pipes containing wicks, the fluid is returned by capillary action.

When making heat pipes, there is no need to create a vacuum in the pipe. One simply boils the working fluid in the heat pipe until the resulting vapour has purged the non condensing gases from the pipe and then seals the end.

An interesting property of heat pipes is the temperature over which they are effective. Initially, it might be suspected that a water charged heat pipe would only work when the hot end reached the boiling point (100 °C) and steam was transferred to the cold end. However, the boiling point of water is dependent on absolute pressure inside the pipe. In an evacuated pipe, water will boil just slightly above its melting point (0 °C). The heat pipe will operate, therefore, when the hot end is just slightly warmer than the melting point of the working fluid. Similarly, a heat pipe with water as a working fluid can work well above the boiling point (100 °C), if the cold end is low enough in temperature to condense the fluid.

The main reason for the effectiveness of heat pipes is the evaporation and condensation of the working fluid. The heat of vaporization greatly exceeds the sensible heat capacity. Using water as an example, the energy needed to evaporate one gram of water is equivalent to the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of that same gram of water by 540 °C (hypothetically, if the water was under extremely high pressure so it didn't vaporize or freeze over this temperature range). Almost all of that energy is rapidly transferred to the "cold" end when the fluid condenses there, making a very effective heat transfer system with no moving parts.


Grover and his colleagues were working on cooling systems for nuclear power cells for space craft, where extreme thermal conditions are found. Heat pipes have since been used extensively in spacecraft as a means for managing internal temperature conditions.

Heat pipes are extensively used in many modern computer systems, where increased power requirements and subsequent increases in heat emission have resulted in greater demands on cooling systems. Heat pipes are typically used to move heat away from components such as CPUs and GPUs to heat sinks where thermal energy may be dissipated into the environment.

Solar Thermal

Heat pipes are also being widely used in solar thermal water heating applications in combination with evacuated tube solar collector arrays. In these applications, distilled water is commonly used as the heat transfer fluid inside a sealed length of copper tubing that is located within an evacuated glass tube and oriented towards the sun.

In solar thermal water heating applications, an evacuated tube collector can deliver up to 40% more efficiency compared to more traditional "flat plate" solar water heaters. Evacuated tube collectors eliminate the need for anti-freeze additives to be added as the vacuum helps prevent heat loss. These types of solar thermal water heaters are frost protected down to more than -3 °C and are being used in Antarctica to heat water.

Pipelines over permafrost

Heat pipes are used to dissipate heat on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. Without them residual ground heat remaining in the oil as well as that produced by friction and turbulence in the moving oil would conduct down the pipe's support legs. This would likely melt the permafrost on which the supports are anchored. This would cause the pipeline to sink and possibly sustain damage. To prevent this each vertical support member has been mounted with 4 vertical heat pipes.

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.