On Photovoltaic Generators and Scattering Cross Sections

Subtitle: Dimensional Analysis again.

Our photovoltaic generator has about 5 kW rated ‘peak’ power – 18 panels with 265W each.

PV Generator: 10 modules oriented south-east

South-east oriented part of our generator – 10 panels. The remaining 8 are oriented south-west.

Peak output power is obtained under so-called standard testing condition – 1 kWp (kilo Watt peak) is equivalent to:

  • a panel temperature of 25°C (as efficiency depends on temperature)
  • an incident angle of sunlight relative to zenith of about 48°C – equivalent to an air mass of 1,5. This determines the spectrum of the electromagnetic radiation.
  • an irradiance of solar energy of 1kW per square meter.
Simulated direct irradiance spectra for air mass=0 to 10 with SMARTS 2.9.5

Simulated spectra for different air masses (Wikimedia, User Solar Gate). For AM 1 the path of sunlight is shortest and thus absorption is lowest.

The last condition can be rephrased as: We get 1 kW output per kW/minput. 1 kWp is thus defined as:

1 kWp = 1 kW / (1 kW/m2)

Canceling kW, you end up with 1 kWp being equivalent to an area of 1 m2.

Why is this a useful unit?

Solar radiation generates electron-hole pairs in solar cells, operated as photodiodes in reverse bias. Only if the incoming photon has exactly the right energy, solar energy is used efficiently. If the photon is not energetic enough – too ‘red’ – it is lost and converted to heat. If the photon is too blue  – too ‘ultraviolet’ – it generates electrical charges, but the greater part of its energy is wasted as the probability of two photons hitting at the same time is rare. Thus commercial solar panels have an efficiency of less than 20% today. (This does not yet say anything about economics as the total incoming energy is ‘free’.)

The less efficient solar panels are, the more of them you need to obtain a certain target output power. A perfect generator would deliver 1 kW output with a size of 1 m2 at standard test conditions. The kWp rating is equivalent to the area of an ideal generator that would generate the same output power, and it helps with evaluating if your rooftop area is large enough.

Our 4,77 kW generator uses 18 panels, about 1,61 m2 each – so 29 m2 in total. Panels’ efficiency  is then about 4,77 / 29 = 16,4% – a number you can also find in the datasheet.

There is no rated power comparable to that for solar thermal collectors, so I wonder why the unit has been defined in this way. Speculating wildly: Physicists working on solar cells usually have a background in solid state physics, and the design of the kWp rating is equivalent to a familiar concept: Scattering cross section.

An atom can be modeled as a little oscillator, driven by the incident electromagnetic energy. It re-radiates absorbed energy in all directions. Although this can be fully understood only in quantum mechanical terms, simple classical models are successful in explaining some macroscopic parameters, like the index of refraction. The scattering strength of an atom is expressed as:

[ Power scattered ] / [ Incident power of the beam / m2 ]

… the same sort of ratio as discussed above! Power cancels out and the result is an area, imagined as a ‘cross-section’. The atom acts as if it were an opaque disk of a certain area that ‘cuts out’ a respective part of the incident beam and re-radiates it.

The same concept is used for describing interactions between all kinds of particles (not only photons) – the scattering cross section determines the probability that an interaction will occur:

WirkungsquerschnittSkizze

Particles’ scattering strengths are represented by red disks (area = cross section). The probability of a scattering event going to happen is equal to the ratio of the sum of all red disk areas and the total (blue+red) area. (Wikimedia, User FerdiBf)

Learning General Relativity

Math blogger Joseph Nebus does another A – Z series of posts, explaining technical terms in mathematics. He asked readers for their favorite pick of things to be covered in this series, and I came up with General Covariance. Which he laid out in this post – in his signature style, using neither equations nor pop-science images like deformed rubber mattresses – but ‘just words’. As so often, he manages to explain things really well!

Actually, I asked for that term as I am in the middle of yet another physics (re-)learning project – in the spirit of my ventures into QFT a while back.

Since a while I have now tried (on this blog) to cover only the physics related to something I have both education in and hands-on experience with. Re General Relativity I have neither: My PhD was in applied condensed-matter physics – lasers, superconductors, optics – and this article by physicist Chad Orzel about What Math Do You Need For Physics? covers well what sort of math you need in that case. Quote:

I moved into the lab, and was concerned more with technical details of vacuum pumps and lasers and electronic circuits and computer data acquisition and analysis.

So I cannot find the remotest way to justify why I would need General Relativity on a daily basis – insider jokes about very peculiarly torus-shaped underground water/ice tanks for heat pumps aside.

My motivation is what I described in this post of mine: Math-heavy physics is – for me, that means a statistical sample of 1 – the best way of brazing myself for any type of tech / IT / engineering work. This positive effect is not even directly related to math/physics aspects of that work.

But I also noticed ‘on the internet’ that there is a community of science and math enthusiasts, who indulge in self-studying theoretical physics seriously as a hobby. Often these are physics majors who ended up in very different industry sectors or in management / ‘non-tech’ jobs and who want to reconnect with what they once learned.

For those fellow learners I’d like to publish links to my favorite learning resources.

There seem to be two ways to start a course or book on GR, and sometimes authors toggle between both modes. You can start from the ‘tangible’ physics of our flat space (spacetime) plus special relativity and then gradually ‘add a bit of curvature’ and related concepts. In this way the introduction sounds familiar, and less daunting. Or you could try to introduce the mathematical concepts at a most rigorous abstract level, and return to the actual physics of our 4D spacetime and matter as late as possible.

The latter makes a lot of sense as you better unlearn some things you took for granted about vector and tensor calculus in flat space. A vector must no longer be visualized as an arrow that can be moved around carelessly in space, and one must be very careful in visualizing what transforming coordinates really means.

For motivation or as an ‘upper level pop-sci intro’…

Richard Feynman’s lecture on curved space might be a very good primer. Feynman explains what curved space and curved spacetime actually mean. Yes, he is using that infamous beetle on a balloon, but he also gives some numbers obtained by back-of-the-envelope calculations that explain important concepts.

For learning about the mathematical foundations …

I cannot praise these Lectures given at the Heraeus International Winter School Gravity and Light 2015 enough. Award-winning lecturer Frederic P. Schuller goes to great lengths to introduce concepts carefully and precisely. His goal is to make all implicit assumptions explicit and avoid allusions to misguided ‘intuitions’ one might got have used to when working with vector analysis, tensors, gradients, derivatives etc. in our tangible 3D world – covered by what he calls ‘undergraduate analysis’. Only in lecture 9 the first connection is made back to Newtonian gravity. Then, back to math only for some more lectures, until finally our 4D spacetime is discussed in lecture 13.

Schuller mentions in passing that Einstein himself struggled with the advanced math of his own theory, e.g. in the sense of not yet distinguishing clearly between the mathematical structure that represents the real world (a topological manifold) and the multi-dimensional chart we project our world onto when using an atlas. It is interesting to pair these lectures with this paper on the history and philosophy of general relativity – a link Joseph Nebus has pointed to in his post on covariance.

Learning physics or math from videos you need to be much more disciplined than with plowing through textbooks – in the sense that you absolutely have to do every single step in a derivation on your own. It is easy to delude oneself that you understood something by following a derivation passively, without calculating anything yourself. So what makes these lectures so useful is that tutorial sessions have been recorded as well: Tutorial sheets and videos can be found here.
(Edit: The Youtube channel of the event has not all the recordings of the tutorial sessions, only this conference website has. It seems the former domain does not work any more, but the content is perserved at gravity-and-light.herokuapp.com)

You also find brief notes for these lectures here.

For a ‘physics-only’ introduction …

… I picked a classical, ‘legendary’ resource: Landau and Lifshitz give an introduction to General Relativity in the last third of the second volume in their Course of Theoretical Physics, The Classical Theory of Fields. Landau and Lifshitz’s text is terse, perhaps similar in style to Dirac’s classical introduction to quantum mechanics. No humor, but sublime and elegant.

Landau and Lifshitz don’t need manifolds nor tangent bundles, and they use the 3D curvature tensor of space a lot in addition to the metric tensor of 4D spacetime. They introduce concepts of differences in space and time right from the start, plus the notion of simultaneity. Mathematicians might be shocked by a somewhat handwaving, ‘typical physicist’s’ way to deal with differentials, the way vectors on different points in space are related, etc. – neglecting (at first sight, explore every footnote in detail!) the tower of mathematical structures you actually need to do this precisely.

But I would regard Lev Landau sort of a Richard Feynman of The East, so it takes his genius not make any silly mistakes by taking the seemingly intuitive notions too literally. And I recommend this book only when combined with a most rigorous introduction.

For additional reading and ‘bridging the gap’…

I recommend Sean Carroll’s  Lecture Notes on General Relativity from 1997 (precursor of his textbook), together with his short No-Nonsense Introduction to GR as a summary. Carroll switches between more intuitive physics and very formal math. He keeps his conversational tone – well known to readers of his popular physics books – which makes his lecture notes a pleasure to read.

Artist's concept of general relativity experiment (Public Domain, NASA, Wikimedia)

__________________________________

So this was a long-winded way to present just a bunch of links. This post should also serve as sort of an excuse that I haven’t been really active on social media or followed up closely on other blogs recently. It seems in winter I am secluding myself from the world in order to catch up on theoretical physics.

And Now for Something Completely Different: Rotation Heat Pump!

Heat pumps for space heating are all very similar: Refrigerant evaporates, pressure is increased by a scroll compressor, refrigerant condenses, pressure is reduced in an expansion value. *yawn*

The question is:

Can a compression heat pump be built in a completely different way?

Austrian start-up ECOP did it: They  invented the so-called Rotation Heat Pump.

It does not have a classical compressor, and the ‘refrigerant’ does not undergo a phase transition. A pressure gradient is created by centrifugal forces: The whole system rotates, including the high-pressure (heat sink) and low-pressure (source) heat exchanger. The low pressure part of the system is positioned closer to the center of the rotation axis, and heat sink and heat source are connected at the axis (using heating water). The system rotates at up to 1800 rounds per minute.

A mixture of noble gases is used in a Joule (Brayton) process, driven in a cycle by a ventilator. Gas is compressed and thus heated up; then it is cooled at constant pressure and energy is released to the heat sink. After expanding the gas, it is heated up again at low pressure by the heat source.

In the textbook Joule cycle, a turbine and a compressor share a common axis: The energy released by the turbine is used to drive the compressor. This is essential, as compression and expansion energies are of the same order of magnitude, and both are considerably larger than the net energy difference – the actual input energy.

In contrast to that, a classical compression heat pump uses a refrigerant that is condensed while releasing heat and then evaporated again at low pressure. There is no mini-turbine to reduce the pressure but only an expansion valve, as there is not much energy to gain.

This explains why the Rotation Heat Pumps absolutely have to have compression efficiencies of nearly 100%, compared to, say, 85% efficiency of a scroll compressor in heat pump used for space heating:

Some numbers for a Joule process (from this German ECOP paper): On expansion of the gas 1200kW are gained, but 1300kW are needed for compression – if there would be no losses at all. So the net input power is 100kW. But if the efficiency of the compression is reduced from 100% to 80% about 1600kW are needed and thus a net input power of 500kW – five times the power compared to the ideal compressor! The coefficient of performance would plummet from 10 to 2,3.

I believe these challenging requirements are why Rotation Heat Pumps are ‘large’ and built for industrial processes. In addition to the high COP, this heat pump is also very versatile: Since there are no phase transitions, you can pick your favorite corner of the thermodynamic state diagram at will: This heat pump works for very different combinations temperatures of the hot target and the cold source.

Re-Visiting Carnot’s Theorem

The proof by contradiction used in physics textbooks is one of those arguments that appear surprising, then self-evident, then deceptive in its simplicity. You – or maybe only: I – cannot resist turning it over and over in your head again, viewing it from different angles.

tl;dr: I just wanted to introduce the time-honored tradition of ASCII text art images to illustrate Carnot’s Theorem, but this post got out of hand when I mulled about how to  refute an erroneous counter-argument. As there are still research papers being written about Carnot’s efficiency I feel vindicated for writing a really long post though.

Carnot‘s arguments prove that there is a maximum efficiency of a thermodynamic heat engine – a machine that turns heat into mechanical energy. He gives the maximum value by evaluating one specific, idealized process, and then proves that a machine with higher efficiency would give rise to a paradox. The engine uses part of the heat available in a large, hot reservoir of heat and turns it into mechanical work and waste heat – the latter dumped to a colder ‘environment’ in a 4-step process. (Note that while our modern reformulation of the proof by contradiction refers to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Carnot’s initial version was based on the caloric theory.)

The efficiency of such an engine η – mechanical energy per cycle over input heat energy – only depends on the two temperatures (More details and references here):

\eta_\text{carnot} = \frac {T_1-T_2}{T_1}

These are absolute temperatures in Kelvin; this universal efficiency can be used to define what we mean by absolute temperature.

I am going to use ‘nice’ numbers. To make ηcarnot equal to 1/2, the hot temperature
T1 = 273° = 546 K, and the colder ‘environment’ has T2 = 0°C = 273 K.

If this machine is run in reverse, it uses mechanical input energy to ‘pump’ energy from the cold environment to the hot reservoir – it is a heat pump using the ambient reservoir as a heat source. The Coefficient of Performance (COP, ε) of the heat pump is heat output over mechanical input, the inverse of the efficiency of the corresponding engine. εcarnot is 2 for the temperatures given above.

If we combine two such perfect machines – an engine and a heat pump, both connected to the hot space and to the cold environment, their effects cancel out: The mechanical energy released by the engine drives the heat pump which ‘pumps back’ the same amount of energy.

In the ASCII images energies are translated to arrows, and the number of parallel arrows indicates the amount of energy per cycle (or power). For each device, the number or arrows flowing in and out is the same; energy is always conserved. I am viewing this from the heat pump’s perspective, so I call the cold environment the source, and the hot environment room.

Neither of the heat reservoirs are heated or cooled in this ideal case as the same amount of energy flows from and to each of the heat reservoirs:

|----------------------------------------------------------|
|         Hot room at temperature T_1 = 273°C = 546 K      |
|----------------------------------------------------------|
           | | | |                         | | | |
           v v v v                         ^ ^ ^ ^
           | | | |                         | | | |
       |------------|                 |---------------|
       |   Engine   |->->->->->->->->-|   Heat pump   |
       |  Eta = 1/2 |->->->->->->->->-| COP=2 Eta=1/2 |
       |------------|                 |---------------|
             | |                             | |
             v v                             ^ ^
             | |                             | |
|----------------------------------------------------------| 
|        Cold source at temperature T_2 = 0°C = 273 K      | 
|----------------------------------------------------------|

If either of the two machines works less than perfectly and in tandem with a perfect machine, anything is still fine:

If the engine is far less than perfect and has an efficiency of only 1/4 – while the heat pump still works perfectly – more of the engine’s heat energy input is now converted to waste heat and diverted to the environment:

|----------------------------------------------------------|
|         Hot room at temperature T_1 = 273°C = 546 K      |
|----------------------------------------------------------|
           | | | |                           | |  
           v v v v                           ^ ^  
           | | | |                           | |  
       |------------|                 |---------------|
       |   Engine   |->->->->->->->->-|   Heat pump   |
       |  Eta = 1/4 |                 | COP=2 Eta=1/2 |
       |------------|                 |---------------|
            | | |                             |
            v v v                             ^
            | | |                             |
|----------------------------------------------------------| 
|        Cold source at temperature T_2 = 0°C = 273 K      | 
|----------------------------------------------------------|

Now two net units of energy flow from the hot room to the environment (summing up the arrows to and from the devices):

|----------------------------------------------------------|
|         Hot room at temperature T_1 = 273°C = 546 K      |
|----------------------------------------------------------|
                              | |                                
                              v v                                
                              | | 
                     |------------------|
                     |   Combination:   |
                     | Eta=1/4 COP=1/2  |
                     |------------------|                            
                              | |                              
                              v v                              
                              | |                             
|----------------------------------------------------------| 
|        Cold source at temperature T_2 = 0°C = 273 K      | 
|----------------------------------------------------------|

Using a real-live heat pump with a COP of 3/2 (< 2) together with a perfect engine …

|----------------------------------------------------------|
|         Hot room at temperature T_1 = 273°C = 546 K      |
|----------------------------------------------------------|
          | | | |                             | | | 
          v v v v                             ^ ^ ^ 
          | | | |                             | | |
       |------------|                 |-----------------|
       |   Engine   |->->->->->->->->-|    Heat pump    |
       |  Eta = 1/2 |->->->->->->->->-|     COP=3/2     |
       |------------|                 |-----------------|
            | |                                 |
            v v                                 ^
            | |                                 |
|----------------------------------------------------------| 
|        Cold source at temperature T_2 = 0°C = 273 K      | 
|----------------------------------------------------------|

… causes again a non-paradoxical net flow of one unit of energy from the room to the environment.

In the most extreme case  a poor heat pump (not worth this name) with a COP of 1 just translates mechanical energy into heat energy 1:1. This is a resistive heating element, a heating rod, and net heat fortunately flows from hot to cold without paradoxes:

|----------------------------------------------------------|
|         Hot room at temperature T_1 = 273°C = 546 K      |
|----------------------------------------------------------|
            | |                                |   
            v v                                ^   
            | |                                |   
       |------------|                 |-----------------|
       |   Engine   |->->->->->->->->-|   'Heat pump'   |
       |  Eta = 1/2 |                 |     COP = 1     |
       |------------|                 |-----------------|
             |                                 
             v                                 
             |                                 
|----------------------------------------------------------| 
|        Cold source at temperature T_2 = 0°C = 273 K      | 
|----------------------------------------------------------|

The textbook paradox in encountered, when an ideal heat pump is combined with an allegedly better-than-possible engine, e.g. one with an efficiency:

ηengine = 2/3 (> ηcarnot = 1/2)

|----------------------------------------------------------|
|         Hot room at temperature T_1 = 273°C = 546 K      |
|----------------------------------------------------------|
           | | |                           | | | |
           v v v                           ^ ^ ^ ^
           | | |                           | | | |
       |------------|                 |---------------|
       |   Engine   |->->->->->->->->-|   Heat pump   |
       |  Eta = 2/3 |->->->->->->->->-| COP=2 Eta=1/2 |
       |------------|                 |---------------|
             |                               | |
             v                               ^ ^
             |                               | |
|----------------------------------------------------------| 
|        Cold source at temperature T_2 = 0°C = 273 K      | 
|----------------------------------------------------------|

The net effect / heat flow is then:

|----------------------------------------------------------|
|        Hot room at temperature T_1 = 273°C = 546 K       | 
|----------------------------------------------------------| 
                             | 
                             ^ 
                             | 
                   |------------------| 
                   |   Combination:   | 
                   | Eta=3/2; COP=1/2 | 
                   |------------------| 
                             | 
                             ^ 
                             | 
|----------------------------------------------------------| 
|       Cold source at temperature T_2 = 0°C = 273 K       | 
|----------------------------------------------------------|

One unit of heat would flow from the environment to the room, from the colder to the warmer body without any other change being made to the system. The combination of these machines would violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics; it is a Perpetuum Mobile of the Second Kind.

If the heat pump has a higher COP than the inverse of the perfect engine’s efficiency, a similar paradox arises, and again one unit of heat flows in the forbidden direction:

|----------------------------------------------------------|
|         Hot room at temperature T_1 = 273°C = 546 K      |
|----------------------------------------------------------|
            | |                             | | |
            v v                             ^ ^ ^
            | |                             | | |
       |------------|                 |---------------|
       |   Engine   |->->->->->->->->-|   Heat pump   |
       |  Eta = 1/2 |                 |    COP = 3    |
       |------------|                 |---------------|
             |                               | |
             v                               ^ ^
             |                               | |
|----------------------------------------------------------| 
|        Cold source at temperature T_2 = 0°C = 273 K      | 
|----------------------------------------------------------|

A weird question: Can’t we circumvent the paradox if we pair the impossible superior engine with a poor heat pump?

|----------------------------------------------------------|
|         Hot room at temperature T_1 = 273°C = 546 K      |
|----------------------------------------------------------|
           | | |                             | |  
           v v v                             ^ ^  
           | | |                             | |  
       |------------|                 |---------------|
       |   Engine   |->->->->->->->->-|   Heat pump   |
       |  Eta = 2/3 |->->->->->->->->-|    COP = 1    |
       |------------|                 |---------------|
             |                                
             v                                
             |                                
|----------------------------------------------------------| 
|        Cold source at temperature T_2 = 0°C = 273 K      | 
|----------------------------------------------------------

Indeed: If the COP of the heat pump (= 1) is smaller than the inverse of the engine’s efficiency (3/2), there will be no apparent violation of the Second Law – one unit of net heat flows from hot to cold.

An engine with low efficiency 1/4 would ‘fix’ the second paradox involving the better-than-perfect heat pump:

|----------------------------------------------------------|
|         Hot room at temperature T_1 = 273°C = 546 K      |
|----------------------------------------------------------|
           | | | |                          | | |
           v v v v                          ^ ^ ^
           | | | |                          | | |
       |------------|                 |---------------|
       |   Engine   |->->->->->->->->-|   Heat pump   |
       |  Eta = 1/4 |                 |     COP=3     |
       |------------|                 |---------------|
            | | |                            | |
            v v v                            ^ ^
            | | |                            | |
|----------------------------------------------------------| 
|        Cold source at temperature T_2 = 0°C = 273 K      | 
|----------------------------------------------------------|

But we cannot combine heat pumps and engines at will, just to circumvent the paradox – one counter-example is sufficient: Any realistic engine combined with any realistic heat pump – plus all combinations of those machines with ‘worse’ ones – have to result in net flow from hot to cold …

The Second Law identifies such ‘sets’ of engines and heat pumps that will all work together nicely. It’s easier to see this when all examples are condensed into one formula:

The heat extracted in total from the hot room – Q1 –  is the difference of heat used by the engine and heat delivered by the heat pump, both of which are defined in relation to the same mechanical work W:

Q_1 = W\left (\frac{1}{\eta_\text{engine}}-\varepsilon_\text{heatpump}\right)

This is also automatically equal to Qas another quick calculation shows or by just considering that energy is conserved: Some heat goes into the combination of the two machines, part of it – W – flows internally from the engine to the heat pump. But no part of the input Q1 can be lost, so the output of the combined machine has to match the input. Energy ‘losses’ such as energy due to friction will flow to either of the heat reservoirs: If an engine is less-then-perfect, more heat will be wasted to the environment; and if the heat pump is less-than-perfect a greater part of mechanical energy will be translated to heat only 1:1. You might be even lucky: Some part of heat generated by friction might end up in the hot room.

As Q1 has to be > 0 according to the Second Low, the performance numbers have to related by this inequality:

\frac{1}{\eta_\text{engine}}\geq\varepsilon_\text{heatpump}

The equal sign is true if the effects of the two machines just cancel each other.

If we start from a combination of two perfect machines (ηengine = 1/2 = 1/εheatpump) and increase either ηengine or εheatpump, this condition would be violated and heat would flow from cold to hot without efforts.

But also an engine with efficiency = 1 would work happily with the worst heat pump with COP = 1. No paradox would arise at first glance  – as 1/1 >= 1:

|----------------------------------------------------------|
|         Hot room at temperature T_1 = 273°C = 546 K      |
|----------------------------------------------------------|
             |                                |   
             v                                ^   
             |                                |   
       |------------|                 |-----------------|
       |   Engine   |->->->->->->->->-|   'Heat pump'   |
       |   Eta = 1  |                 |      COP=1      |
       |------------|                 |-----------------|
                                               
                                               
                                               
|----------------------------------------------------------| 
|        Cold source at temperature T_2 = 0°C = 273 K      | 
|----------------------------------------------------------|

What’s wrong here?

Because of conservation of energy ε is always greater equal 1; so the set of valid combinations of machines all consistent with each other is defined by:

\frac{1}{\eta_\text{engine}}\geq\varepsilon_\text{heatpump}\geq1

… for all efficiencies η and COPs / ε of machines in a valid set. The combination η = ε = 1 is still not ruled out immediately.

But if the alleged best engine (in a ‘set’) would have an efficiency of 1, then the alleged best heat pump would have an Coefficient of Performance of only 1 – and this is actually the only heat pump possible as ε has to be both lower equal and greater equal than 1. It cannot get better without creating paradoxes!

If one real-live heat pump is found that is just slightly better than a heating rod – say
ε = 1,1 – then performance numbers for the set of consisent, non-paradoxical machines need to fulfill:

\eta_\text{engine}\leq\eta_\text{best engine}

and

\varepsilon_\text{heatpump}\leq\varepsilon_\text{best heatpump}

… in addition to the inequality relating η and ε.

If ε = 1,1 is a candidate for the best heat pump, a set of valid machines would comprise:

  • All heat pumps with ε between 1 and 1,1 (as per limits on ε)
  • All engines with η between 0 and 0,9 (as per inequality following the Second Law plus limit on η).

Consistent sets of machines are thus given by a stronger condition – by adding a limit for both efficiency and COP ‘in between’:

\frac{1}{\eta_\text{engine}}\geq\text{Some Number}\geq\varepsilon_\text{heatpump}\geq1

Carnot has designed a hypothetical ideal heat pump that could have a COP of εcarnot = 1/ηcarnot. It is a limiting case of a reversible machine, but feasible on principle. εcarnot  is thus a valid upper limit for heat pumps, a candidate for Some Number. In order to make this inequality true for all sets of machines (ideal ones plus all worse ones) then 1/ηcarnot = εcarnot also constitutes a limit for engines:

\frac{1}{\eta_\text{engine}}\geq\frac{1}{\eta_\text{carnot}}\geq\varepsilon_\text{heatpump}\geq1

So in order to rule out all paradoxes, Some Number in Between has to be provided for each set of machines. But what defines a set? As machines of totally different making have to work with each other without violating this equality, this number can only be a function of the only parameters characterizing the system – the two temperatures

Carnot’s efficiency is only a function of the temperatures. His hypothetical process is reversible, the machine can work either as a heat pump or an engine. If we could come up with a better process for a reversible heat pump (ε > εcarnot), the machine run in reverse would be an engine with η less than ηcarnot, whereas a ‘better’ engine would lower the upper bound for heat pumps.

If you have found one truly reversible process, both η and ε associated with it are necessarily the upper bounds of performance of the respective machines, so you cannot push Some Number in one direction or the other, and the efficiencies of all reversible engines have to be equal – and thus equal to ηcarnot. The ‘resistive heater’ with ε = 1 is the iconic irreversible device. It will not turn into a perfect engine with η = 1 when ‘run in reverse’.

The seemingly odd thing is that 1/ηcarnot appears like a lower bound for ε at first glance if you just declare ηcarnot an upper bound for corresponding engines and take the inverse, while in practice and according to common sense it is the maximum value for all heat pumps, including irreversible ones. (As a rule of thumb a typical heat pump for space heating has a COP only 50% of 1/ηcarnot.)

But this ‘contradiction’ is yet another way of stating that there is one universal performance indicator of all reversible machines making use of two heat reservoirs: The COP of a hypothetical ‘superior’ reversible heat pump would be at least 1/ηcarnot  … as good as Carnot’s reversible machine, maybe better. But the same is true for the hypothetical superior engine with an efficiency of at least ηcarnot. So the performance numbers of all reversible machines (all in one set, characterized by the two temperatures) have to be exactly the same.

Steam pump / Verkehrt laufende Dampfmaschine

Historical piston compressor (from the time when engines with pistons looked like the ones in textbooks), installed 1878 in the salt mine of Bex, Switzerland. 1943 it was still in operation. Such machines used in salt processing were considered the first heat pumps.

Rowboats, Laser Pulses, and Heat Energy (Boring Title: Dimensional Analysis)

Dimensional analysis means to understand the essentials of a phenomenon in physics and to calculate characteristic numbers – without solving the underlying, often complex, differential equation. The theory of fluid dynamics is full of interesting dimensionless numbers –  Reynolds Number is perhaps most famous.

In the previous post on temperature waves I solved the Heat Equation for a very simple case, in order to answer the question How far does solar energy get into ground in a year? Reason: I have been working on simulations of our heat pump system since a few years. This also involves heat transport between the water/ice tank and ground. If you set out to simulate a complex phenomenon you have to make lots of assumptions about materials’ parameters, and you have to simplify the system and equations you use for modelling the real world. You need a way of cross-checking if your results sound plausible in terms of orders of magnitude. So my goal has been to find yet another method to confirm assumptions I have made about the thermal properties of ground elsewhere.

Before I am going to revisit heat transport, I’ll try to explain what dimensional analysis is – using the best example I’ve ever seen. I borrow it from theoretical physicist – and awesome lecturer – David Tong:

How does the speed of a rowing boat depend in the number of rowers?

References: Tong’s lecture called Dynamics and Relativity (Chapter 3), This is the original paper from 1971 Tong quotes: Rowing: A similarity analysis.

College boat v1 c1830The boat experiences a force of friction in water. As for a car impeded by the friction of the surrounding air, the force of friction depends on velocity.

Force is the change of momentum, momentum is proportional to mass times velocity. Every small ‘parcel’ of water carries a momentum proportional to speed – so force should at least be proportional to one factor of v. But these parcel move at a speed v, so the faster they move the more momentum is exchanged with the boat; so there has to be a second factor of v, and force is proportional to the square of the speed of the boat.

The larger the cross-section of the submerged part of the boat, A, the higher is the number of collisions between parcels of water and the boat, so putting it together:

F \sim v^{2}A

Rowers need to put in power to compensate for friction. Power is energy per time, and Energy is force times distance. Since distance over time is velocity, thus power is also force times velocity.

So there is one more factor of v to be included in power:

P \sim v^{3}A

For the same reason wind power harvested by wind turbines is proportional to the third power of wind speed.

A boat does not sink because downward gravity and upward buoyancy just compensate each other; buoyancy is the weight of the volume of water displaced. The heavier the load, the more water needs to be displaced. The submerged volume of the boat V is proportional to the weight of the rowers, and thus to their number N if the mass of the boat itself is negligible:

V \sim N

The volume of something scales with the third power of its linear dimensions – think of a cube or a sphere; so the surface area scales with the square of the length, and the cross-section A scales with V – and thus with N:

A \sim N^{\frac{2}{3}}

Each rower contributes the same share to the total rowing power, so:

P \sim N

Inserting for A in the first expression for P:

P \sim v^{3} N^{\frac{2}{3}}

Eliminating P as it has been shown to be proportional to N:

N \sim v^{3} N^{\frac{2}{3}}
v^{3} \sim N^{\frac{1}{3}}
v \sim N^{\frac{1}{9}}

… which is in good agreement with measurements according to Tong.

Heat Transport and Characteristic Lengths

In the last post I’ve calculated characteristic lengths, describing how heat is slowly dissipated in ground: 1) The wavelength of the damped oscillation and 2) the run-out length of the enveloping exponential function.

temperature-wave-spatial

Both are proportional to the square root of a simple number:

l \sim \sqrt{D \tau}

… the factor of proportionality being ‘small’ on a logarithmic scale, like π or 2 or their inverse. τ is the period, and D was a number expressing how well the material carries away heat energy.

There is another ‘simple’ scenario that also results in a length scale described by
\sqrt{D \tau} times a small number: If you deposit a confined ‘lump of heat’, a ‘point heat’ it will peter out and the average width of the lump after some time τ is about this length as well.

Heat eqn

Using very short laser pulse to heat solid material is very close to depositing ‘point heat’. Decades ago I worked with pulsed excimer lasers, used for ablation (‘shooting off) material from ceramic targets.This type of lasers is used in eye surgery today:

Hindsight is 20-20, Warfighter Refractive Eye Surgery Center has a vision of the future 141210-A-FJ979-002Heat is deposited in nanosecond pulses, and the run-out length of the heat peak in the material is about \sqrt{D \tau} with tau being equal to the very short laser’s pulse length of several nanoseconds. As the pulse duration is short, the penetration depth is short as well, and tissue is ‘cut’ precisely without heating much of the underlying material.

So this type of \sqrt{D \tau} length is not just a result of a calculation for a specific scenario, but it rather seems to encompass important characteristics of heat conduction as such.

The unit of D is area over time, m2/s. If you accept the heat equation as a starting point, analysing the dimensions involved by counting x and t you see that D has to contain two powers of x and one of t. Half of applied physics and engineering is about getting units right.

But I pretend I don’t even know the heat equation and ‘visualize’ heat transport in this way: ‘Something’ – like heat energy – is concentrated in space and closely peters out. The spreading out is faster, the more concentrated it is. A thin needle-like peak quickly becomes a rounded hill, and then is flattened gradually. Concentration in space means curvature. The smaller the space occupied by the lump of heat is, the smaller its radius, the higher its curvature as curvature is the inverse of the radius of a tangential circular path.

I want to relate curvature to the change with time. Change in time has to be measured in units including the inverse of time, curvature is the inverse of space. Equating those, you have to come with something including the square of spatial dimension and one temporal dimension – something like D [m2/s].

How to get a characteristic length from this? D has to be multiplied by a characteristic time, and then we need to take a the square root. So we need to put in some characteristic time, that’s a property of the specific system investigated and not of the equation – like the yearly period or the laser pulse. And the resulting length is exactly that l \sim \sqrt{D \tau} that shows up in any of of the solutions for specific scenarios.

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Further reading:

The characteristic width of the spreading lump of heat is visible in the so-called Green’s functions. These functions described a system’s response to a ‘source’ which resemble a needle-like peak in time. In this case it is a Gaussian functions with a ‘width’ \sim \sqrt{D \tau} . See e.g. equation (14) on PDF-page 14 of these lecture notes.

Penetration depth of excimer lasers in human tissue – in this book the square root D times tau formula is used and depths are calculated to be equal to several 10 micrometers.

 

Temperature Waves and Geothermal Energy

Nearly all of renewable energy exploited today is, in a sense, solar energy. Photovoltaic cells convert solar radiation into electricity, solar thermal collectors heat hot water. Plants need solar power for photosynthesis, for ‘creating biomass’. The motion of water and air is influenced by the fictitious forces caused by the earth’s rotation, but by temperature gradients imposed by the distribution of solar energy as well.

Also geothermal heat pumps with ground loops near the surface actually use solar energy deposited in summer and stored for winter – that’s why I think that ‘geothermal heat pumps’ is a bit of a misnomer.

3-ton Slinky Loop

Collector (heat exchanger) for brine-water heat pumps.

Within the first ~10 meters below the surface, temperature fluctuates throughout the year; at 10m the temperature remains about constant and equal to 10-15°C for the whole year.

Only at higher depths the flow of ‘real’ geothermal energy can be spotted: In the top layer of the earth’s crust the temperatures rises about linearly, at about 3°C (3K) per 100m. The details depend on geological peculiarities, it can be higher in active regions. This is the energy utilized by geothermal power plants delivering electricity and/or heat.

Temperature schematic of inner Earth

Geothermal gradient adapted from Boehler, R. (1996). Melting temperature of the Earth’s mantle and core: Earth’s thermal structure. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, 24(1), 15–40. (Wikimedia, user Bkilli1). Geothermal power plants use boreholes a few kilometers deep.

This geothermal energy originates from radioactive decays and from the violent past of the primordial earth: when the kinetic energy of celestial objects colliding with each other turned into heat.

The flow of geothermal energy per area directed to the surface, associated with this gradient is about 65 mW/m2 on continents:

Earth heat flow

Global map of the flow of heat, in mW/m2, from Earth’s interior to the surface. Davies, J. H., & Davies, D. R. (2010). Earth’s surface heat flux. Solid Earth, 1(1), 5-24. (Wikimedia user Bkilli1)

Some comparisons:

  • It is small compared to the energy from the sun: In middle Europe, the sun provides about 1.000 kWh per m2 and year, thus 1.000.000Wh / 8.760h = 144W/m2 on average.
  • It also much lower than the rule-of-thumb power of ‘flat’ ground loop collectors – about 20W/m2
  • The total ‘cooling power’ of the earth is several 1010kW: Would the energy not be replenished by radioactive decay, the earth would lose a some seemingly impressive 1014kWh per year, yet this would result only in a temperature difference of ~10-7°C (This is just a back-of-the-envelope check of orders of magnitude, based on earth’s mass and surface area, see links at the bottom for detailed values).

The constant energy in 10m depth – the ‘neutral zone’ – is about the same as the average temperature of the earth (averaged over one year over the surface of the earth): About 14°C. I will show below that this is not a coincidence: The temperature right below the fluctuating temperature wave ‘driven’ by the sun has to be equal to the average value at the surface. It is misleading to attribute the 10°C in 10m depths to the ‘hot inner earth’ only.

In this post I am toying with theoretical calculations, but in order not so scare readers off too much I show the figures first, and add the derivation as an appendix. My goal is to compare these results with our measurements, to cross-check assumptions for the thermal properties of ground I use in numerical simulations of our heat pump system (which I need for modeling e.g. the expected maximum volume of ice)

I start with this:

  1. The surface temperature varies periodically in a year, and I use maximum, minimum and average temperature from our measurements, (corrected a bit for the mild last seasons). These are daily averages as I am not interested in the daily temperature changes between and night.
  2. A constant geothermal flow of 65 mW/m2 is superimposed to that.
  3. The slow transport of solar energy into ground is governed by a thermal property of ground, called the thermal diffusivity. It describes ‘how quickly’ a lump of heat deposited will spread; its unit is area per time. I use an assumption for this number based on values for soil in the literature.

I am determining the temperature as a function of depth and of time by solving the differential equation that governs heat conduction. This equation tells us how a spatial distribution of heat energy or ‘temperature field’ will slowly evolve with time, given the temperature at the boundary of the interesting part of space in question – in this case the surface of the earth. Fortunately, the yearly oscillation of air temperature is about the simplest boundary condition one could have, so you can calculate the solution analytically.
Another nice feature of the underlying equation is that it allows for adding different solutions: I can just add the effect of the real geothermal flow of energy to the fluctuations caused by solar energy.

The result is a  ‘damped temperature wave’; the temperature varies periodically with time and space: The spatial maximum of temperature moves from the surface to a point below and back: In summer (beginning of August) the measured temperature is maximum at the surface, but in autumn the maximum is found some meters below – heat flows back from ground to the surface then:

Temperature wave propagating through ground near the surface of the earth.

Calculated ground temperature, based on measurements of the yearly variation of the temperature at the surface and an assumption of the thermal properties of ground. Calculated for typical middle European maximum and minimum temperatures.

This figure is in line with the images shown in every textbook of geothermal energy. Since the wave is symmetrical about the yearly average, the temperature in about 10m depth, when the wave has ‘run out’, has to be equal to the yearly average at the surface. The wave does not have much chance to oscillate as it is damped down in the middle of the first period, so the length of decay is much shorter than the wavelength.

The geothermal flow just adds a small distortion, an asymmetry of the ‘wave’. It is seen only when switching to a larger scale.

Temperature wave propagating through ground near the surface of the earth - larger scale.

Some data as in previous plot, just extended to greater depths. The geothermal gradient is about 3°C/100m, the detailed value being calculated from the value of thermal conductivity also used to model the fluctuations.

Now varying time instead of space: The higher the depth, the more time it takes for ground to reach maximum temperature. The lag of the maximum temperature is proportional to depth: For 1m difference in depth it is less than a month.

Temperature wave: Temporal evolution

Temporal change of ground temperature at different depths. The wave is damped, but other simply ‘moving into the earth’ at a constant speed.

Measuring the time difference between the maxima for different depths lets us determine the ‘speed of propagation’ of this wave – its wavelength divided by its period. Actually, the speed depends in a simple way on the thermal diffusivity and the period as I show below.

But this gives me an opportunity to cross-check my assumption for diffusivity: I  need to compare the calculations with the experimentally determined delay of the maximum. We measure ground temperature at different depths, below our ice/water tank but also in undisturbed ground:

Temperature wave - experimental results

Temperature measured with Pt1000 sensors – comparing ground temperature at different depths, and the related ‘lag’. Indicated by vertical dotted lines, the approximate positions of maxima and minima. The lag is about 10-15 days.

The lag derived from the figure is in the same order as the lag derived from the calculation and thus in accordance with my assumed thermal diffusivity: In 70cm depth, the temperature peak is delayed by about two weeks.

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Appendix: Calculations and background.

I am trying to give an outline of my solution, plus some ‘motivation’ of where the differential equation comes from.

Heat transfer is governed by the same type of equation that describes also the diffusion of gas molecules or similar phenomena. Something lumped together in space slowly peters out, spatial irregularities are flattened. Or: The temporal change – the first derivative with respect to time – is ‘driven’ by a spatial curvature, the second derivative with respect to space.

\frac{\partial T}{\partial t} = D\frac{\partial^{2} T}{\partial x^{2}}

This is the heat transfer equation for a region of space that does not have any sources or sinks of heat – places where heat energy would be created from ‘nothing’ or vanish – like an underground nuclear reaction (or freezing of ice). All we know about the material is covered by the constant D, called thermal diffusivity.

The equation is based on local conservation of energy: The energy stored in a small volume of space can only change if something is created or removed within that volume (‘sources’) or if it flows out of the volume through its surface. This is a very general principles applicable to almost anything in physics. Without sources or sinks, this translates to:

\frac{\partial [energy\,density]}{\partial t} = -\frac{\partial \overrightarrow{[energy\,flow]}}{\partial x}

The energy density [J/m3] stored in a volume of material by heating it up from some start temperature is proportional to temperature, proportionality factors being the mass density ρ [kg/m3] and the specific heat cp [J/kg] of this material. The energy flow per area [W/m2] is typically nearly proportional to the temperature gradient, the constant being heat conductivity κ [W/mK]. The gradient is the first-order derivative in space, so inserting all this we end with the second derivative in space.

All three characteristic constants of the heat conducting material can be combined into one – the diffusivity mentioned before:

D = \frac{\kappa }{\varrho \, c_{p} }

So changes in more than one of these parameters can compensate for each other; for example low density can compensate for low conductivity. I hinted at this when writing about heat conduction in our gigantic ice cube: Ice has a higher conductivity and a lower specific heat than water, thus a much higher diffusivity.

I am considering a vast area of ground irradiated by the sun, so heat conduction will be one-dimensional and temperature changes only along the axis perpendicular to the surface. At the surface the temperature varies periodically throughout the year. t=0 is to be associated with beginning of August – our experimentally determined maximum – and the minimum is observed at the beginning of February.

This assumption is just the boundary condition needed to solve this partial differential equation. The real ‘wavy’  variation of temperature is closed to a sine wave, which makes the calculation also very easy. As a physicist I have trained to used a complex exponential function rather than sine or cosine, keeping in mind that only real part describes the real world. This a legitimate choice, thanks to the linearity of the differential equation:

T(t,x=0) = T_{0} e^{i\omega t}

with ω being the angular frequency corresponding to one year (2π/ω = 1 year).

It oscillates about 0, with an amplitude of half of T0. But after all, the definition of 0°C is arbitrary and – again thanks to linearity – we can use this solution and just add a constant function to shift it to the desired value. A constant does neither change with space or time and thus solves the equation trivially.

If you have more complicated sources or sinks, you would represent those mathematically as a composition of simpler ‘sources’, for each of which you can find a quick solution and then add up add the solutions, again thanks to linearity. We are lucky that our boundary condition consist just of one such simple harmonic wave, and we guess at the solution for all of space, adding a spatial wave to the temporal one.

So this is the ansatz – an educated guess for the function that we hope to solve the differential equation:

T(t,x) = T_{0} e^{i\omega t + \beta x}

It’s the temperature at the surface, multiplied by an exponential function. x is positive and increasing with depth. β is some number we don’t know yet. For x=0 it’s equal to the boundary temperature. Would it be a real, negative number, temperature would decrease exponentially with depth.

The ansatz is inserted into the heat equation, and every differentiation with respect to either space or time just yields a factor; then the exponential function can be cancelled from the heat transfer equation. We end up with a constraint for the factor β:

i\omega = D\beta^{2}

Taking the square root of the complex number, there would be two solutions:

\beta=\pm \sqrt{\frac{\omega}{2D}}(1+i))

β has a real and an imaginary part: Using it in T(x,t) the real part corresponds to exponential ‘decay’ while the imaginary part is an oscillation (similar to the temporal one).

Both real and imaginary parts of this function solve the equation (as any linear combination does). So we take the real part and insert β – only the solution for β with negative sign makes sense as the other one would describe temperature increasing to infinity.

T(t,x) = Re \left(T_{0}e^{i\omega t} e^{-\sqrt{\frac{\omega}{2D}}(1+i)x}\right)

The thing in the exponent has to be dimension-less, so we can express the combinations of constants as characteristic lengths, and insert the definition of ω=2π/τ):

T(t,x) = T_{0} e^{-\frac{x}{l}}cos\left(2\pi\left(\frac {t} {\tau} -\frac{x}{\lambda }\right)\right)

The two lengths are:

  • the wavelength of the oscillation \lambda = \sqrt{4\pi D\tau }
  • and the attenuation length  l = \frac{\lambda}{2\pi} = \sqrt{\frac{D\tau}{\pi}}

So the ratio between those lengths does not depend on the properties of the material and the wavelength is always much shorter than the attenuation length. That’s why there is hardly one period visible in the plots.

The plots have been created with this parameters:

  • Heat conductivity κ = 0,0019 kW/mK
  • Density ρ = 2000 kg/m3
  • Specific heat cp = 1,3 kJ/kgK
  • tau = 1 year = 8760 hours

Thus:

  • Diffusivity D = 0,002631 m2/h
  • Wavelength λ = 17 m
  • Attenuation length l = 2,7 m

The wave (any wave) propagates with a speed v equivalent to wavelength over period: v = λ / tau.

v = \frac{\lambda}{\tau} = \frac{\sqrt{4\pi D\tau}}{\tau} = \sqrt{\frac{4\pi D}{\tau}}

The speed depends only on the period and the diffusivity.

The maximum of the temperature as observed in a certain depth x is delayed by a time equal x over v. Cross-checking our measurements of the temperature T(30cm) and T(100cm), I would thus expect a delay by 0,7m / (17m/8760h) = 360 h = 15 days which is approximately in agreement with experiments (taking orders of magnitude). Note one thing though: Only the square root of D is needed in calculations, so any error I make in assumptions for D will be generously reduced.

I have not yet included the geothermal linear temperature gradient in the calculation. Again we are grateful for linearity: A linear – zero-curvature – temperature profile that does not change with time is also a trivial solution of the equation that can be added to our special exponential solution.

So the full solution shown in the plot is the sum of:

  • The damped oscillation (oscillating about 0°C)
  • Plus a constant denoting the true yearly average temperature
  • Plus a linear decrease with depth, the linear correction being 0 at the surface to meet the boundary condition.

If there would be no geothermal gradient (thus no flow from beneath) the temperature at infinite distance (practically in 20m) would be the same as the average temperature of the surface.

Daily changes could be taken into account by adding yet another solution that satisfies an amendment to the boundary condition: Daily fluctuations of temperatures would be superimposed to the yearly oscillations. The derivation would be exactly the same, just the period is different by a factor of 365. Since the characteristic lengths go with the square root of the period, yearly and daily lengths differ only by a factor of about 19.

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Further reading:

Intro to geothermal energy:

A quick intro to geothermal energy.
Where does geothermal energy come from?

Geothermal gradient and energy of the earth:

Earth’s heat energy budget
Geothermal gradient
Radius and mass of earth

These data for bore holes using one scale show the gradient plus the disturbed surface region, with not much of a neutral zone in between.

Theory of Heat Conduction

Heat Transfer Equation on Wikipedia
Textbook on Heat Conduction, available on archive.org in different formats.

I have followed the derivation of temperature waves given in my favorite German physics book on Thermodynamics and Statistics, by my late theoretical physics professor Wilhelm Macke. This page quotes the classic on heat conduction, by Carlslaw and Jäger, plus the main results for the characteristic lengths.

Peter von Rittinger’s Steam Pump (AKA: The First Heat Pump)

Peter von Rittinger’s biography reads like a success story created by a Victorian novelist, and his invention was a text-book example of innovation triggered by scarcity ( Bio DE / EN).

Born 1811, he was poor and became an orphan early. Yet he was able to study mathematics and physics as his secondary education had been financed by the Piarist Order. He also studied law and mining. Immediately after having graduated he was appointed as inspector in an iron ore processing plant (stamping mill), and later called a pioneer in that field and accountable for several inventions.

1850 Rittinger became ‘Sectionsrat’ (head of a division) in the Ministry of Agriculture and Mining in Vienna. He was knighted in 1863, so quoting all his titles as a public servant in the higher echelons of the Austro-Hungarian empire he was:
k. k. Sectionsrath Oberbergrath Ritter von Rittinger.

Peter von RittingerYet it seems even as an administrator he was still a hands-on tinkerer. He developed a process for harvesting salt from brine at Saline Ebensee in Upper Austria – saving 80% of input energy compared to processes used at this time. In the mid of the 19th century saltworks in Austria had been dependent on fuel: on wood available locally. Railway tracks have not been built yet, and fossil fuels had not yet been available. The ecological footprint had to be much closer to the physical area than today.

In History of Heatpumps, Martin Zogg writes:

One of the main applications [of mechanical vapor compression] is the salt production from salt brine. In order to get 1 kg of salt there have to be evaporated about 3 kg of water, which illustrates the enormous energy demand of such processes. Whole forests had been cleared for this purpose.
Peter von Rittinger … was the first to try the realisation of this idea on a pilot scale. …. He designed and installed the first known pilot heat pump for heating only with a capacity of 14  kW, … The start-up of Rittinger’s “steam pump” was in 1857.

This is the title page of Rittinger’s publication of 1855:

Rittinger, Abdampfverfahren, 1855. Title page.Translating about to:

Theoretical-practical treatise
on a novel evaporation process
applicable to all varieties of liquids
using one and the same amount of heat
which – for this purpose –
is set into perpetual circular motion by water power.
Taking into account the salt boiling process specifically.

I have created this simplified figure from the description in his paper:

Rittinger, Steam Pump, called the first heat pump.

Simplified sketch showing the principles of Peter von Rittinger’s steam pump as described in his original paper. The vessel had to be opened to remove the salt which had precipitated in the upper part of the vessel (called a brine ‘pan’ in German) and water accumulated in the lower part (‘double bottom’).

Salt brine is feed into the upper part of a vessel can be closed an has two parts: The colder, upper part contains brine mixed with water vapor at low temperature and low pressure; the lower part is separated from this cavity by a metal slab with high thermal conductivity. The colder vapor is compressed; and the compressor is driven by a water wheel. To start the process, all cavities are filled with vapor heated to 100°C at the beginning.

At a higher pressure, the evaporation / condensation temperature is higher. Thus hot, dense vapor condenses on the top of the lower cavity, releasing heat which is available in the upper cavity to heat the colder ‘input vapor’. This makes salt precipitate in the upper chamber where it was collected regularly.

In a heat pump for room heating a refrigerant running in a closed cycle is compressed by a mechanical compressor powered by electrical energy. At low temperatures and low pressures the refrigerant evaporates easily, even when in contact with a cold heat source (such as our water / ice tank at 0°C in winter). After compression, vapor condenses at temperatures higher than room temperature and thus the refrigerant is able to release the heat ‘harvested’ before. Rittinger’s steam pump is called The First Heat Pump by historians: However, in this device the water vapor mixed with salt brine is both the ‘refrigerant’ and the liquid to be heated.

In his paper, Rittinger explained that you could as well start from a brine at a temperature as low as 10°C, not needing any auxiliary heating. The system would operate at lower temperatures and pressures. But due to the lower pressures the same material would occupy a larger volume and thus the system had to be much bigger. I suppose, taking into account investment costs, this would have been less economical than using a bit of fuel to get the process going.

What I found intriguing about Rittinger’s work – and perhaps about the way research publications were written back then – was the combination of hands-on engineering, theoretical modeling, and honest and ‘narrative’ reporting of difficulties. Zogg’s history of heat pump quotes quite a number of Leonardo-da-Vinci-style inventors with diverse interests and an obviously ‘holistic’ approach.

Martin Zogg notes that using today’s technology, such ‘steam pumps’ easily obtain a coefficient of performance of 15 – more than 3 times the COP of a heat pump used for room heating. Mechanical vapor compression is state-of-the art technology in salt processing. The reason for the high COP is the lower temperature difference between hot and cool brine vapor. You just need to provide for a sufficient temperature gradient to allow for heat transport from the hot to the cooler cavity, and to overcome the change in evaporation temperature (according to Raoult’s Law).

I could not find the figures in the original paper that Rittinger referred to. The following image is a link to a clickable, larger version of the figures Rittinger had added to a later paper dated 1857, on the actual results of his experiments:

Figures attached to Rittinger's paper of 1857, steam pump experiments(Provided by the digitized archive of Polytechnisches Journal, by University of Berlin, under Creative Commons by-nc-nd 3.0)

What looks like a top view of spaceship Enterprise is the vessel seen from the top. On the left, the corresponding side view shows that it was rather tall. What had been described as a simple separating wall-style flat heat exchanger was actually built as a system of several cylindrical cavities (to increase the heat exchanger’s surface). In the figure the cavities containing high-pressure vapor are denoted with b/c/d. The steam pump / compressor is denoted with E, Dampf-Pumpe, and shown to the right of the vessel in the side view.

Though the numbers were in line with his theoretical calculations, Rittinger’s pilot system did not work well: This was an unreliable batch process, as the vessel was opened regularly to remove the precipitated salt. Rittinger made some suggestions in his original paper, on how to harvest salt continuously. From experience he knew that salt crystals should easily glide downwards from a tilted plane. But among other issues, Rittinger noted in his research report from 1857 that salt crystals behaved quite differently in his vessel, and he attributed it to the higher temperatures in the closed vessel: Instead of being able to harvest the loose crystal at the tip of the conical vessel, all vertical planes have been covered with a crust of salt that resisted also the strongest chisel.

His epigones finally solved such issues – quoting Zogg again:

Probably stimulated by the experiments of Rittinger at Ebensee, the first truly functioning vapour recompression salt plant was developed in Switzerland by Antoine-Paul Piccard the University of Lausanne and the engineer J.H. Weibel of the company Weibel-Briquet of  Geneva in 1876. In 1877, this first heat pump in Switzerland was installed at the salt works at Bex. It was on a larger scale than Rittinger’s apparatus and produced around 175 kg/h of salt in continuous operation.