Heat Pumps

heat-pumpsThe refrigerator in your kitchen is the only “free energy machine” you currently own. It’s an electrically operated heat pump. If you have an air conditioner in your home, that is a heat pump too. In fact, any appliance that produces “artificial cooling effects” is technically a heat pump.

Almost everyone has heat pump technology in their life, but almost no one understands how central the heat pump is to the “Free Energy” story. You see, the heat pump is the first technology ever developed that used a small amount of energy (electricity to operate a pump) to move a larger amount of energy (heat from the environment) from one place to another.

In a typical use today, your Refrigerator uses one amount of energy (electricity) to move three amounts of energy (heat). This gives it a “coefficient of performance” (COP) of about 3. Your refrigerator uses one amount of electricity to pump three amounts of heat from the inside of the refrigerator to the outside of the refrigerator.

A Little History

The idea that artificial cooling effects could be accomplished by a “vapor compression and decompression cycle” was first proposed by Oliver Evans in 1805. The first “working model” of such a device was patented in 1834 by Jacob Perkins. Over the next 80 years, dozens of other inventors contributed to the development of this process.

By the early 1900s, dozens of companies were starting to sell “electric Ice Boxes” that didn’t need ice to stay cold. In 1916, Alfred Mellowes designed the first, “self contained” electric cooling appliance for home use and formed the Guardian Frigerator Company. Two years later, he was bought out by William Durant, a wealthy executive with General Motors Corporation. Durant changed the name of the company to Frigidaire Co. Five years later, in 1923, Frigidaire introduced the first “mass manufactured” self-contained refrigerator.

These early refrigerators were still very expensive, many of them costing more than an automobile. They also used a variety of working fluids (refrigerants) that were either flammable, toxic, or both! Some of these early refrigerant compounds were ethyl-alcohol, ammonia, sulfur-dioxide, methyl-formate, methyl-chloride, and ether.

Electric refrigerators started coming into general use around 1930, after most manufacturers adopted the use of Freon-12 as the refrigerant, and as prices dropped in the wake of the Great Depression in the USA, as well as the more general availability of electricity in the home.

What Does a Heat Pump Do?

It is generally recognized that heat in the environment tends to equalize. So, hot areas tend to lose heat to the surrounding cooler zones, and cooler areas tend to draw heat in from warmer surroundings. This gives rise to the idea of the “ambient temperature” or simply the environmental average temperature. So, heat moves from a high temperature area to a low temperature area spontaneously. This is the behavior of the Natural World.

A heat pump is a system that works with this natural process to produce a result that reverses that trend. So, a heat pump can move heat from a low temperature area to a high temperature area, with the expenditure of a modest amount of external energy.

How Does it Work?

heat-pump-diagram1A heat pump is usually constructed by the formation of a “closed loop” that contains the working fluid, which is called the refrigerant. This working fluid is then compressed at one location in the loop and then decompressed at the opposite end of the loop. In between these two locations are “heat exchangers” where heat can be added or subtracted from the environment as needed.

Here is a more detailed diagram of how a heat pump works.

heat-pump-explanation1The cycle starts in the lower left corner, where the system takes in heat from the environment and uses it to boil the liquid portion of the working fluid. Moving around the cycle in a clock-wise direction, the next process is to compress the cold vapor. This action raises its pressure, but also raises its temperature. Now the working fluid is hotter than the ambient air. Next, the working fluid, as a hot vapor, moves into the second heat exchanger where it gives heat back to the environment. This cools the vapor into a liquid under pressure. The final process is to release the pressure at the expansion valve, which cools the working fluid even more, but also vaporizes some of the fluid. Now, the working fluid is colder than the ambient air and the cycle begins again.

Co-Efficient of Performance

heat-pump-COP1As mentioned earlier, a typical refrigerator has a COP=3. What that means is that one amount of energy, in the form of electricity, is sufficient to move three amounts of energy, in the form of environmental heat, from one location to another. It accomplishes this feat using a working fluid whose temperature is raised and lowered above and below the ambient temperature so that heat may move into and out of this working fluid spontaneously. The temperature changes are produced by alternately compressing and decompressing the working fluid.

So, this is how a standard refrigerator or air conditioner works. But there is one more level of efficiency that can be added.

Pressure Release and Recapture

heat-pump-regenerative2Most commercially available heat pumps use an electric motor to turn a mechanical compressor to compress the working fluid in the system. This is how the input electricity is used. As early as 1920, heat pump designers realized that the pressure released at the “expansion valve” could be used to perform mechanical work as well as to facilitate the cooling of the working fluid. By replacing the expansion “valve” with an expansion “turbine” this mechanical energy could also be recaptured.

houston-1930-USP1When the electric motor, the compressor and the expansion turbine are all mechanically connected on the same shaft, the mechanical energy recovered from the expansion of the working fluid off-sets and reduces a portion of the electricity needed to operate the compressor. The first US Patent to issue on this idea was granted in 1930 to John Houston.

In a system like this, if 50% of the mechanical energy needed to operate the compressor can be recovered from the expansion turbine, then the electric motor only needs to supply the remainder. This can increase the COP of a standard heat pump by a factor of two, giving a COP=6 with associated cost reductions for operation.

Archetypal Free Energy System

The “Regenerative Heat Pump” is the archetypal Free Energy machine. It fully embodies our Energy Philosophy of “Conserve, and use Natural Energy First.” It does this by conserving the mechanical energy needed to operate the system while it directs an environmental energy through the system. It demonstrates that energy can be “recycled” and used again. (For more on this, see the page on Conservation.) It also demonstrates that the total amount of energy that the “user” needs to supply to a machine is NOT directly related to the amount of useful energy the system can provide!

Once you fully understand that heat, mechanical energy, and electricity can all be “recycled” in well designed systems, you will begin to understand how a wide variety of machines can be made to produce MORE ENERGY than YOU have to put in!

COP vs Efficiency

The idea of the efficiency of a machine is based on the First Law of Thermodynamics which states that “energy can not be created or destroyed, but that it can be converted from one form into another.” So, efficiency has to do with the idea of converting energy from one form to another.  Since ALL machines have losses associated with those conversions, ALL machines operate at an efficiency below 100%!

But machines that operate from multiple SOURCES of energy, especially where one of those sources of energy can be accessed from the environment at no cost, the machine CAN produce more useful energy than is provided by the other conventional, non-environmental source. This creates the situation where the machine has a COP>1, but still operates at an efficiency below 100%.

These ideas are NOT contradictory, but have confused many serious students of this science for a long time. The purpose of this essay is to help clarify how these two ideas relate to each other. From a practical point of view, the COP of a machine is much more important than its efficiency.

To learn more about how heat pumps are used to gather heat from the Oceans and from the ground (Geothermal), just follow those links. To learn more about the science of efficient energy use and management, consider purchasing the Lecture titled Open System Thermodynamics.

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