Two-phase cooling has been utilized in the electronics cooling industry for many decades, with possibly the most well-known adaptation being the heat pipe. Heat pipes are capillary-driven, two-phase devices that rely on the boiling and condensation of a working fluid to transfer heat significant distances with minimal temperature gradient. The flow of the working fluid inside of a heat pipe is facilitated by a capillary wick structure that relies on surface tension to return the condensed liquid to the heat generating components. Heat pipes have found their way into a large number of industries and applications because of their high performance, high reliability, and low cost. Unfortunately, as the electronics industry’s insatiable quest for smaller, higher-powered devices soldiers on, the discrete cooling power of the heat pipe approaches obsolescence.
Cue the heat pipe’s lesser-known cousin; the loop thermosyphon (or thermosiphon). Loop thermosyphons (LTS) are gravity-driven, two-phase devices that operate in a similar manner to a heat pipe in so far as a working fluid is evaporated and condensed in a closed loop to transfer heat over a given distance. Some readers may be more familiar with a traditional thermosyphon, shown in Figure 1a, where the liquid and vapor occupy a single tube. Loop thermosyphons, as shown in Figure 1b (and as the name suggests), operate in more of a loop fashion where the liquid and vapor travel more independently.
Contrary to the capillary pumping of the working fluid in a heat pipe, an LTS relies on gravity head to circulate the fluid around the loop. This, of course, means that loop thermsyphons can only operate in a vertical orientation, but if this condition can be met, an LTS can offer a wide range of benefits that most other cooling systems cannot. This article will provide an overview of how an LTS operates, how system integrators could incorporate a technology like this to advance their products, and the benefits of using an LTS over most existing cooling technologies; passive or active.
Loop Thermosyphon Operation
A typical LTS consists of an evaporator, a condenser, and plumbing between the two for the liquid and vapor to travel. The liquid return line (or downcomer) is connected to the evaporator cavity to facilitate the flow of the working fluid. In a similar fashion, the vapor line (or riser) is connected to the condenser completing the loop. The system is hermetically sealed and filled with a particular inventory of working fluid. Working fluids are typically dielectric refrigerants with high liquid-to-vapor density ratios and high latent heat. The reason for selecting fluids with these properties is because flow in the loop is driven by the density difference between the downcomer and riser. Larger differences between liquid and vapor states results in a larger driving force and more fluid flow rate.
Heat is applied to the loop through the evaporator. The evaporator could take on any number of forms to cool the system in question. The most common configuration for the evaporator is a traditional-looking liquid cold plate in which heat generating components are mounted and the heat is conducted into the system. An example of such a configuration is shown in Figure 2 for a traditional power electronics cooling application. The functionality of an LTS is mostly agnostic to the form of the evaporator, so many variations of an evaporator are possible. Some of these configurations are discussed in more detail in the following section.
In the “off state” the loop sits idle with an equal height of liquid filling the downcomer (h2) and evaporator cavity (h1). As heat is applied to the evaporator region of the loop, vapor bubbles are generated in the flow as the latent heat of the working fluid absorbs the applied energy. These bubbles (or voids) serve to reduce the effective density of the liquid column inside of the evaporator resulting in a net pressure head difference between the downcomer and the evaporator. As more heat is applied to the system, more of the liquid in the evaporator is converted into vapor further reducing the effective density and driving more fluid flow. The maximum amount of fluid flow, and corresponding power input, is determined by the available height difference between the evaporator and condenser (h2 – h1).
It is useful to define a term, void ratio, to refer to the ratio of void space in the evaporator to the volume still occupied by liquid. As more heat is applied to the LTS, the void ratio approaches 1 (or 100%). At this point the maximum height gradient between the condenser and evaporator is achieved because there is no more liquid head inside of the evaporator (i.e. h1 = 0). As shown in Figure 3, this point near maximum void fraction is not necessarily a point of dryout (or maximum vapor quality) like would be seen in other two-phase systems. Since void fraction is a density-driven term, fluids with low vapor densities and relatively high latent heat will reach a state near maximum voiding before all of the latent heat is consumed (i.e. quality = 1).
In practical terms what this means is that an LTS will always operate in an excess liquid flow regime. As shown in Figure 3, the flow rate around the loop could approach its maximum level at a vapor quality of around 0.5. In contrast, heat pipes operate in a binary boiling and condensation process where the evaporator sends 100% quality vapor to the condenser and only saturated liquid (i.e. quality = 0) is returned to the evaporator. In this case the maximum power that a heat pipe can carry is directly proportional to the latent heat of the working fluid. Since excess liquid is virtually guaranteed in an LTS, the maximum power handling capability can far exceed that of a heat pipe provided that sufficient vertical height is available.
Loop thermosyphons have actually been in use for many decades in industries like automotive engine cooling (circa 1935), chemical processing plants, and even nuclear reactors. Evaporator and condenser geometry combinations are near infinite, but the most typical configuration utilizes a liquid cold plate evaporator and a tube-fin condenser like the one shown in Figure 4. Some other potential implementations could involve a two-circuit liquid heat exchanger for cooling a liquid loop or a liquid-to-air heat exchanger for cooling air streams. Similarly, the condenser of an LTS could be any type of heat exchanger that allows heat to be removed from the system. This flexibility in evaporator and condenser design is one of the major benefits of utilizing LTS technology.
For more demanding applications, surface area enhancement features, like fins, are possible on the inside of the evaporator to increase the maximum heat flux capability. Traditional passive cooling techniques, like heat pipes, are limited to heat fluxes of less than 50 W/cm2. With an internal fin structure in an LTS evaporator and sufficient height for fluid flow, heat fluxes greater than 100 W/cm2 have been demonstrated. That makes LTS technology one of the highest heat flux capable passive cooling solutions currently available.
Another benefit of utilizing LTS technology takes advantage of the two-phase nature of the working fluid inside of the loop. The phase change process from liquid to vapor occurs along a line of constant temperature. Therefore, an LTS is capable of maintaining numerous heat sources mounted on the same evaporator at around the same temperature. This phenomenon is only possible in a two-phase system, whether it is active or passive. A pumped single-phase liquid loop would require a substantial amount of fluid flow in order to achieve the same effect which results in higher energy consumption, higher pump noise, and increased reliability concerns.
Loop thermosyphons offer a wide range of benefits to system designers including passive operation, high heat flux capability, isothermality, and low cost. As long as a vertical operating orientation can be achieved, an LTS is an optimal cooling solution for a wide range of applications. Increasing component powers and shrinking system sizes will continue to demand the highest of performance from cooling solutions, and system designers will not relent in their pursuit of the lowest cost and most reliable solution that meets their system needs. Thermal management no longer has to be a leash on our technological advancements. The opportunity to expand our system capabilities is out there, and loop thermosyphons provide a viable solution.
This article was written by Devin Pellicone, Lead Engineer Custom Products, Advanced Cooling Technologies, Inc. (Lancaster, PA). For more information, Click Here .