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Tasked with the quest to economically and efficiently extend civilization into the Northern regions, the construction industry has been hindered by the presence of perennially frozen ground. The thermosyphon is a device that facilitates the harmonious union of structure and ice. This paper will serve as a tutorial on thermosyphons, and present an exploration into the physical concepts that allow their operation.

The physical concepts and phenomenon that enable the operation of thermosyphons can at times be complex-but don’t be scared. This tutorial will start with the most rudimentary explanation of thermosyphons, and proceed from there to deliver more in depth examinations in a step by step process. Let’s get right down to business.

The steps in thermosyphon operation are: STEP 1-Heat flows into the thermosyphon, STEP 2-Heat flows through the thermosyphon tube, and STEP 3-Heat is released into the atmosphere.

Simply stated, a thermosyphon is a device which moves heat from one place to another. There are different types of thermosyphons which are used for different applications, but for the purposes of this primer we will concentrate on thermosyphons used by the construction industry to stabilize frozen ground. For example, consider a road built over permafrost.. In this situation it is desirable to keep the ground from thawing, otherwise the road embankment will be destroyed. A thermosyphon “collects heat” from the frozen ground. This collected heat is brought to the top of the thermosyphon and the cooling fins, where it is released into the atmosphere. In this way, the ground remains frozen.

Now, the thought of frozen soil warming the atmosphere may be hard to grasp. This brings us to an important point about the thermosyphon- they only work when the ambient air temperature is below the temperature of the soil (less than 31 degrees Farenheight). With this in mind, we can consider thermosyphons from a different perspective; a thermosyphon increases the exposure of sub-surface soil to freezing temperatures. Another thought, although not totally correct from a physical standpoint, is that the thermosyphon brings cold into the soil.

Let’s examine the thermodynamic process by which a thermosyphon operates. This process is outlined below in a step by step chronology.

Step 1-There is an accumulation of the working fluid in the bottom of the thermosyphon. The most important factor that governs the choice of a working fluid is that it must have an extremely low boiling point. Permafrost soil is typically at a temperature of 31F and consequently the fluid boiling point should be less than 31F.

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Propane and carbon dioxide have been used, and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline has thermosyphons charged with ammonia. Anyway, heat flow occurs from the soil to the fluid. Once the fluid reaches a critical temperature it boils.

Step 2 –The boiling liquid evaporates into vapor. The vapor rises to the top of the thermosyphon.

Step 3-When the vapor reaches the top, another heat transfer process occurs. This time heat flow occurs from the vapor to the atmosphere. The vapor cools to a critical temperature, at which point it condenses to liquid. The fins facilitate the heat exchange (or “cooling”) process ; they can be likened to cooling fins on a chainsaw or motorcycle engine.

Remember, this process only occurs when the ambient temperature is below freezing. In order for the vapor to condense, it must lose heat. It can only lose heat if the surrounding atmosphere is colder than it.

Step 4 –The condensate drips down the inside walls of the thermosyphon. As it descends, it is cooled further by the atmosphere. The cooled liquid finaly enters the reservoir of working fluid contained in the bottom of the thermosyphon.

Step 5- The process begins again.

Here are a couple of important points:

First, the above process is cyclical and continuous. At any given time during operation, all of the above processes are occurring. Also, it is worth noting that the above process is embodied in the name “two phase thermosyphon.” Heat is moved through two phases; liquid and gas. There are single phase thermosyphons, but they are not widely used.In order to understand the advantages of the two phase thermosyphon versus the single phase thermosyphon, we will have to make a closer examination of the phase change process and its relation to heat transfer.

We are going to delve more into the world of pure physics. To make things flow as smoothly as possible, we will start with some important definitions.

Heat- The transfer of energy from one object to another as a result of a difference in temperature between the two. Heat is not a quality that an isolated object can possess; it is a flow of energy between two objects.

Specific Heat-The amount of heat required to raise the temperature of a given mass of a given substance by a given amount. Specific heat is a constant property of a substance, and every substance has a unique specific heat. It can be thought of heat capacitance; a high value of specific heat implies a high heat capacity, and a low specific heat a low heat capacity.

Think of this: In the spring we often observe lakes that remain frozen long after the ambient air temperature has reached comfortable “tee shirt” temperatures. Ice has a high specific heat, where air has a low specific heat. Therefore, it takes a relatively small amount of heat to warm the air, where it takes an enormous amount of heat to raise the temperature of an equal mass of ice.
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