A Crash Course In Thermodynamics For Electrical Engineers

It’s a simple fact that, in this universe at least, energy is always conserved. For the typical electronic system, this means that the energy put into the system must eventually leave the system. Typically, much of this energy will leave a system as heat, and managing this properly is key to building devices that don’t melt under load. It can be a daunting subject for the uninitiated, but never fear — Adam Zeloof delivered a talk at Supercon 2019 that’s a perfect crash course for beginners in thermodynamics.

Adam’s talk begins by driving home that central rule, that energy in equals energy out. It’s good to keep in the back of one’s mind at all times when designing circuits to avoid nasty, burning surprises. But it’s only the first lesson in a series of many, which serve to give the budding engineer an intuitive understanding of the principles of heat transfer. The aim of the talk is to avoid getting deep into the heavy underlying math, and instead provide simple tools for doing quick, useful approximations.

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Building A DIY Heat Pipe

Once the secret design tool for aerospace designers, the heat pipe is a common fixture now thanks to the demands of PC CPU cooling. Heat pipes can transfer lots of energy from a hot side to a cold side and is useful when you need to cool something where having a fan near the hot part isn’t feasible for some reason. Unlike active cooling, a heat pipe doesn’t require any external power or pumps, either.

[James Biggar] builds his own heat pipes using copper tubing. You can see a video of one being made, below. There’s not much to it, just a copper pipe with some water in it. However, [James] gets the water boiling to reduce the pressure in the tube before sealing it, which is an interesting trick.

One limitation of his technique is that there is no internal wick. That means the tube can only be installed vertically. If you haven’t looked at heat pipes before, most of them do have a wick. The idea is that some working fluid is in the pipe. You select that fluid so that it boils at or below the temperature you want to handle. The hot vapor rushes to the cool side of the pipe (carrying heat) where you have a large heatsink that may have a fan or active cooling system. The vapor condenses and–in this case–drops back to the bottom of the tube. However, if there is a wick, capillary action will return the fluid to the hot end of the tube.

You might think that using water as the working fluid would limit you to 100°C, but remember, [James’] technique lowers the pressure in the tube. At a lower pressure, the water will boil at a lower temperature.

We’ve seen heat pipes and wine chillers used to cool a PC before. In fact, we’ve even seen them in builds of completely fanless PCs.

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