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Thermoacoustic Refrigerators

Overview
A thermoacoustic refrigerator (TAR) is a refrigerator that uses sound waves in order to
provide the cooling. In a TAR, the working fluid is a helium-argon mixture, and the
compressor is replaced by a loudspeaker. The advantages of this kind of refrigeration
cycle are two-fold.

 The helium and argon are inert, environmentally friendly gases, unlike many of
the common refrigerants.
 The loudspeaker is a simple device that is more durable than a compressor and is
the TAR’s only moving part.

The downside of the TAR is that as of yet these types of refrigerators have failed to
achieve efficiencies as high as those as standard refrigeration units. Some researchers
contend that the set-up of the TAR is such that it never will be able to attain efficiencies
as high as standard refrigeration units. Others believe that there is no reason that a TAR
can’t achieve efficiencies as high as standard refrigeration units. They attribute the
currently lower efficiencies to the peculiar sensitivity of the TAR to input parameters and
the relative youth of the field in general.

Different Types of TARs


There are two types of TARs. The first is known as a standing wave thermoacoustic
refrigerator. The second is a traveling wave (or pulse tube) thermoacoustic refrigerator.
The standing wave TAR uses a fixed number of oscillations with nodes that remain
unchanged over time. In other words, the wave of as a whole does not move over time,
remaining stationary. This is similar to a situation where you take a string and fixed two
ends and then pluck it. Because of the fixed ends the wave of the string remains fixed in
place.

The traveling wave TAR, as it sounds like, makes use of a wave of sound that travels
across the TAR. This is analogous to the situation where you take the string and flick it
forward like a whip. The disturbance of the whip creates a sound wave that sends the
wave forward. Each type of TAR has specific advantages in certain situations, and
research is being done into cascading combinations of standing wave and traveling wave
TARS to try to take advantage of these varying advantages.

Standing Wave TAR


The standing wave TAR is similar to a Stirling cycle, which is dependent on pressure
oscillations that occur out of phase with each other. The standing wave TAR is composed
of 5 major components all incased in a tube of some kind. On one end is the
loudspeaker. This then leads to a configuration of a stack with a hot heat exchanger on
one side and a cold heat exchanger on the other side. The combination of these three
components is called “the stack”. The stack is composed of a large number of thin,
parallel plates with only small openings between them. Finally, on the other end of the
stack is a bulb known as the resonator.

The purpose of the loudspeaker is to supply work to the system in the form of sound
waves (this takes the place of the compressor in a standard refrigeration cycle). The
purpose of the stack is to actually take advantage of the oscillating gas such as to cause
heat transfer from the cold heat exchanger to the hot heat exchanger. The purpose of
the resonator is to maintain a particular frequency as a standing wave. Each of these
components is important to the TAR; however, resonators and loudspeakers are
common devices in acoustics in general. It is the stack that is unique to the TAR and is
also probably the most complex component.

The Stack
How Heat is Transferred
The stack is composed of many narrow passages separated by thin plates. It is
oscillation of the gas within these plates that causes the heat transfer. To understand
how this occurs, imagine a small parcel of gas that is starting on the cold side. This side
corresponds to the low-pressure point in the sound wave. Assuming that this gas is an
ideal gas, then a low pressure also means a low temperature. Thus, the cold side is able
to transfer energy to the low temperature gas particle in the form of heat. The parcel
then oscillates to its high pressure point on the hot side of the stack. As the gas
pressurizes, its temperature also increases. Thus, when it hits the high temperature side,
its temperature is higher than that of the hot sink, and it transfers energy into the hot
sink in form of heat. The parcel then depressurizes as it moves back to the cold side
where the cycle starts over again. Notice that this set up depends on many important
factors. First, the points on the sound wave must correspond to the correct locations on
the stack, which makes the TAR fairly sensitive to parameter changes. Second, the
pressure changes must be large enough to be able to change the gas from a
temperature lower than that of the cold sink to higher than that of the hot sink. Keep in
mind that such oscillations are usually no more than 10% of the static pressure (i.e. the
“average” pressure), so the TAR cannot generally work under extreme temperature
conditions.

Distance Between Stack Plates


The distance between the plates in the stack is extremely important. If the gaps are too
narrow, viscous effects will cause the gas to lose too much energy to friction, and the
device will be too inefficient. If the gaps are too large, there won’t be enough contact
between the gases and the plates to cause appreciable temperature oscillations. To
assist in determining the gap between the plates we make use of two characteristic
parameters of the gas. These parameters are dependent on a mixture of gas properties
and the physical setup of the TAR. The thermal penetration depth squared is defined as
twice the thermal conductivity divided by the angular frequency of the sound wave. The
viscous penetration depth squared is defined as twice the kinematic viscosity divided by
the angular frequency of the sound wave. The thermal penetration depth tells us
approximately how far the heat transfer of the gas will penetrate over one oscillation of
the gas. The viscous penetration tells us approximately how far away from the centre of
the gas the viscous effects are felt. Both the thermal and viscous effects are really
asymptotic functions, so these values really just give an approximate value to these
depths, not a definite cut-off. However, we want to have the gap between the plates of
the stack on the same order of magnitude as these penetration depths in order to avoid
the negative effects mentioned earlier. As luck has it, these two values are almost
always close to each other, so we don’t run into problems where there’s no satisfactory
area for both. To be more specific, most researchers are looking at gap sizes
approximately 2-3 times these penetration depths.
Mathematically Modelling the Stack
Unfortunately, the functioning of the stack is very complex mathematically. It can be
described through use of a real pressure, imaginary pressure, and temperature at any
point in the stack. In reality, the temperature at any given points remains nearly
constant in steady state, but the real and imaginary pressures really represent a sine
function for pressure at the given point rather than a fixed value. With this in mind, the
equations that govern the TAR’s stack are:

The governing mathematical equations of the thermoacoustic phenomenon are given below.