MU engineering professor's heat-transfer research could revolutionize mechanics

Thursday, April 24, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
Hongbin "Bill" Ma explains the process of creating oscillating heat pipes during a heat pipe lab presentation at Lafferre Hall. Ma is a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at MU and has created innovative designs in heat-transfer products.

COLUMBIA — To the untrained eye, the copper plates in Bill Ma's engineering lab look like metal scraps. Some are the size of computer chips; others stretch a foot or more across the lab table.

The copper plates house Ma's oscillating heat pipes — fruits of a decade of research and possibly the future of the heat transfer industry.

Designed to prevent mechanical systems from overheating, heat pipes are a staple of the heat-transfer industry.

They have myriad uses — from laptop computer chips to power cells in nuclear reactors. The pipes run liquid from the hot end of a mechanical system to a cooler area where the pipe "dumps" the liquid as vapor.

As more sophisticated energy and technology systems are developed, overheating becomes an increasing problem, pushing the need for more efficient cooling methods. Ma, a professor in MU's Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department, believes his oscillating heat pipes are the answer.

He is the co-founder of ThermAvant Technologies, a company based in Columbia committed to "assembling a team of heat-transfer experts who are dedicated to making the world a better, more efficient place."

Ma is partners with Bin Wu, an MU professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering, and Joe Boswell, another engineer and the entrepreneurial force behind the company. 

The world seems to be recognizing their efforts, as their eight-person team has accrued $5 million in research funding from the Department of Defense, the Office of Naval Research, the Air Force Research Lab, the National Science Foundation, the California Energy Commission, the state of Missouri and others.

ThermAvant's devices can be embedded in nearly any material as "super thermal conductors" to transfer heat in a microchip as small as a dime or an engine in a commercial jet.

While conventional heat pipes run in simple columns across the material subjected to heat, oscillating heat pipes run in a winding pattern that spans the entire plate as one continuous channel.

The phase — liquid to vapor (when heated) and vapor to water (when cooling) — generate an oscillating motion in the heat pipes that transport heat at a much higher rate than conventional heat pipes, Ma said.

Combined with use of better materials, the ability of the oscillating heat pipes to transfer heat is massive when compared to current methods, he said.

The ability of a material to conduct heat is measured in watts per meter per Kelvin. The more watts of heat transferred over a certain area, the higher the substance's thermal conductivity.

"For aluminum alloy, the thermal conductivity is about 170 (watts per meter per Kelvin). For copper, like 400. When you use oscillating heat pipes, you can reach more than 20,000," Ma said.

The ThermAvant team is working to insert their products in military aircraft, computers and even satellite electronics. The prospect might seem daunting, but ThermAvant is confident in its research.

"Our product, it's very unique," Ma said. "Other people, other devices, cannot compete."

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