An aircraft thermal management technology using one-way heat transfer of planar bridging-droplet thermal diodes was developed for use with electronics, aircraft, and spacecraft. Diodes are a special kind of device that allow heat to conduct in only one direction by use of engineered materials. For management of heat, diodes are attractive because they enable the dumping of heat entering one side, while resisting heat on the opposite side. In the case of aircraft, heat is absorbed from an overheated plane but resisted from the outside environment.
A diode was created using two copper plates in a sealed environment, separated by a microscopic gap. The first plate is engineered with a wick structure to hold water, while the opposite plate is coated with a water-repelling (hydrophobic) layer. The water on the wicking surface receives heat, causing evaporation into steam. As the steam moves across the narrow gap, it cools and condenses into dew droplets on the hydrophobic side. These dew droplets grow large enough to “bridge” the gap and get sucked back into the wick, starting the process again. If the source of heat were instead applied on the hydrophobic side, no steam can be produced because the water remains trapped in the wick. This is why the device can only conduct heat in one direction.
An object producing heat, such as a CPU chip, overheats if this heat is not continually removed — the invention is affixed to this heat source. Generated heat is transferred through the conducting plate into the water. Water turns to steam and moves away from the source of the heat. The hydrophobic, nonconducting side prevents heat from entering via the air or other heat sources that may be near, allowing the diode to manage the heat only from its main subject.
The team measured a nearly 100-fold increase in heat conduction when the wicked side was heated, compared to the hydrophobic side. This is a significant improvement to existing thermal diodes that are not very effective — only conducting a few times more heat in one direction — or require gravity. The bridging-droplet thermal diode can be used upright, sideways, or even upside-down and would even work in space where gravity is negligible.