During heat pipe operation, the working fluid evaporates in the evaporator and condenses in the condenser, transferring the latent heat from one end of the heat pipe to the other. The liquid condensate is passively returned to the evaporator by capillary forces in the wick. The maximum power that the heat pipe can carry and still return the condensate by capillary forces is the capillary limit:
ΔPc Capillary force generated in the wick, Pa
ΔPg Pressure drop due to gravitation and acceleration, Pa
ΔPL Liquid pressure drop in the wick, Pa
ΔPV Vapor pressure drop in the heat pipe, Pa
The capillary limit states that the capillary force generated by the wick must be larger than sum of the pressure drops in the wick.
ΔPc, Capillary Force
The capillary pumping capability depends on surface tension and two radii of curvature of the liquid/vapor interface, measured perpendicular to each other:
σ Surface tension, N/m
r1 and r2, are the radii of curvature (m)
For sintered and screen wicks, the two radii are identical, so the equation reduces to:
rc is the pore radius
One of the radii is infinite for grooves, so the equation becomes:
ΔPg, Gravitational Pressure Drop
The gravitational pressure drop is:
ρL Liquid density, kg/m3
ρV Vapor density, kg/m3
g gravity or acceleration, m/s2
h adverse heat pipe elevation, m; See Figure 4.
Since the vapor density is typically much less than the liquid density, this reduces to:
ΔPL and ΔPV, Liquid and Vapor Pressure Drops
The mass flow rate circulating through the heat pipe is directly proportional to the power:
QHeatPipe heat pipe power, W
mDot liquid mass flow, kg/s
λ latent heat, J/kg
With the exception of grooved wicks, the liquid pressure drop in the wick, ΔPL, is calculated with Darcy’s law for fluid flow through a porous media:
μL Liquid viscosity, kg/(m s)
k Wick permeability, an intrinsic property of the wick, m2.
AWick Wick area, measured perpendicular to the liquid flow direction, m2
LEffective Effective length of the heat pipe, defined below, m
Solving for ΔPL, the equation becomes:
For a grooved wick, ΔPL is calculated with the standard pressure drop equations, found in any fluid mechanics textbook. Similarly, ΔPV for all heat pipes is calculated using the standard pressure drop equations.
As discussed above, the capillary limit is calculated using simple, one-dimensional equations. An effective length is used in the pressure drop equations to account for the variation in velocities along the heat pipe. As shown in Figure 5, the vapor and liquid velocities at the start of the evaporator are zero. They increase linearly due to evaporation to a maximum at the start of the adiabatic section, and then are constant in the adiabatic section. In the condenser, condensation causes the vapor and liquid velocities to decrease linearly to zero at the end of the condenser.
To account for the varying velocity, an effective length is used to calculate the vapor and liquid pressure drops.
Capillary Limit Example
Figure 6 shows typical capillary limits as a function of temperature for several different heat pipe diameters, calculated using ACT’s heat pipe calculator. The heat pipe limit generally peaks somewhere in the middle of the working fluid temperature range: At low temperatures, the capillary limit is restricted by high liquid viscosity and low vapor pressure (low vapor density → high vapor velocities). At high temperatures (approaching the critical point), the maximum power drops off, since the surface tension and latent heat of vaporization go to zero.