Material for Thermal Transfer
Location: Outside U.S.
Hi, I am working on a Passive solar water
distillation pump for my science fair project. I
want to know what you might suggest to use as a
metal to transfer heat gathered from a Fresnel lens
at the top of the unit down to the bottom of the
unit which would go deep in the ground to vaporize
water. I am looking at the standard silver copper
gold and aluminum but want to know which would be
best to use in a potable water system with the
least amount of corrosion. Maybe copper with a
silicone insulator? or silver coated with a silicone
insulation? What would be your suggestion?
If I understand your question correctly, what you want is a good
thermal conductor to transfer heat from one place to another. The best
thermal conductor by at least an order of magnitude or two, is a heat
pipe. However this would clearly be impractical from a cost standpoint.
If you are using a length of metal to transfer the heat (as you seem to
describe), then as you can easily see from easily available thermal
conductivity data of various metals, silver would clearly be the best
choice, but also the most impractical from a cost standpoint. The
second best metal, based on thermal conductivity, is (as you probably
know already) copper. Aluminum is the third best.
An important concept to know is that of "thermal resistance". This is
the resistance of your completed metal "bar" to the flow of heat. You
want the metal bar to have the lowest thermal resistance possible (in
other words, the highest thermal conductivity). Several factors
influence this. Too achieve the lowest possible thermal resistance, you
need to have....
- A metal bar made from a metal with the highest practical thermal
conductivity. Copper is the most practical metal in this case.
- A metal bar that has the largest possible cross sectional area. Just
as more water will flow in a wide stream than a narrow one, more heat
will flow (and the thermal resistance will be less) through a conductor
with a larger cross sectional area.
- A metal bar that is as short as possible. The longer the thermal path
(i.e. bar length) is, the higher the thermal resistance, and the less
easily heat will flow.
This should help you arrive at the most optimal design. Please note
that if you look up the thermal conductivity of the metal you use, and
knowing the dimensions of the metal bar, you can fairly easily
calculate a good approximation of the temperature drop as heat flows
along the bad from the heat source, to the water being heated. Your
teacher should be able to explain how to do this.
As for the use of an insulator, it is likely unnecessary. The amount of
heat lost from the bar, will be very small as compared to that being
conducted through the bar to the water, assuming that the length of
the bar is not excessive. Silicone is not a particularly good thermal
insulator, but it is able to withstand high heat. A better insulator would
be something like ordinary fiberglass insulation used in insulating
houses. But my guess is that insulation is not worth the trouble in this
Hope this was helpful.
Yours is an impressive project.
Here is a URL that lists the heat conductivity of materials.
The higher the number the higher the rate of thermal transfer.
From this article:
Heat conduction (as opposed to electrical conduction) is the flow of
internal energy from a region of higher temperature to one of lower
temperature by the interaction of the adjacent particles (atoms, molecules,
ions, electrons, etc.) in the intervening space.
The best ordinary metallic conductors are (in decreasing order) silver,
copper, gold, aluminum, beryllium, and tungsten. Diamond beats them all, and
graphite beats diamond only if the heat can be forced to conduct in a
direction parallel to the crystal layers.
says that "The only reason gold is used in so many applications that require
both high electrical and thermal conductivity, is that gold is very hard to
oxidize and corrode, whereas silver and copper oxidize easily.
Copper is widely used as an electrical conductor because it is cheap
compared with silver."
You can find more information by searching for "best metallic heat
conductor" at http://www.google.com
I don't think you will be able to generate and transfer enough heat to
vaporize water, but good luck trying. That's why it is called an
I see some basic problems with your design that I believe need attention.
First, is that any water that is vaporized at the bottom, will likely
condense on the relatively cold rock that fills the tube, and simply
run back before reaching the top.
The long thin copper rod will offer very significant thermal resistance
to the heat flow needed, and this will (I believe) significantly reduce
the rate of vaporization of ground water.
You will need to blacken the copper ball's surface (a black copper oxide
layer should do the trick) in order increase its emissivity to close to
1.0, that is, to make it appear "black" (and thus to be as perfect an
absorber) to both infrared AND visible wavelengths.
I am not too clear on the function of the radiant fins, since they will
mainly not be in contact with water. Better, might be a circular disk buried
a millimeter or two in the wet soil.
Vaporizing (boiling) water requires a lot of heat energy. Further, in order
to get any water vapor to rise through the rocks to the condenser, the rocks
will ALL have to be heated to at least the boiling point of water (otherwise
they will just condense the steam and the water will run back). I am not
convinced that the relatively thin copper rod can conduct that much heat to
the water below, and to heat the rocks as well.
Also, be aware that in condensing the water vapor, all the heat you put into
boiling it, must be REMOVED to get it to condense! This means that a simple
metal ring will not suffice.... it will simply be heated by the (hopefully)
rising steam, and once it gets hot, it will no longer condense any water.
I suggest a simple experiment... Get a copper rod (without the ball on top)
that is the same diameter and length that you are proposing. Put one end in a
cup of water about an inch deep. Heat the upper end with a blowtorch (to simulate
your Fresnel lense). Now observe how much water appears to be boiling in the cup.
This will quickly give you an idea of the rate of water vaporization you can
expect. Even with a heavily insulated rod, I believe you will find that it is
much less than you expected.
I'd be pleased to discuss this further, as well as to suggest other possible
approaches to this problem. You can email me direct at R.F.Wilson@telus.net
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Update: June 2012