Released from ice are brook and river
By the quickening glance of the gracious Spring;
The colors of hope to the valley cling,
And weak old Winter himself must shiver,
Withdrawn to the mountains, a crownless king.
These are the first lines of the English version of a famous German poem on spring, from the drama Faust, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Weird factoid about me: I was once inclined to study literature, rather than physics. But finally physics won, so this is a post about joyful toying with modeling heat transport in ice and water.
After 46 days we had a high score: The ice cube, generated by our heat pump, stopped growing at about 15m3. About 10m3 of water remained unfrozen. After the volume of ice had been in a steady state for a a while, we turned on the solar collector again to return to standard operations.
Where did the energy for the heat pump come from before?
The lid of the tank is insulated against ambient air, the solar collector was not operational, and no ice had been created: The remaining energy has to be provided by the 5th element that cannot be shut off: 1) water 2) ice, 3) ambient air, 4) solar radiation … 5) ground.
Normally ground supplies about 15 W per m2 surface area – deduced from monitoring the power transported with the brine flow and energy accounting for the tank. The active interface between tank and ground below frost depth is about 35 m2. This results in about 0,5 kW in total, thus just 12 kWh per day, much lower than the ~ 50 kWh ambient energy fed into the heat pump.
After much deliberation and playing with the heat transfer equation we came up with this description of the evolution of the ice cube:
Phase 1: Growth of ice into water.
- Ice starts to grow from the heat exchanger tubes into the remaining water. These tubes are installed in a meandering pattern, traversing the storage tank.
- At some point the thick layers of ice covering adjacent parts of the pipes touch each other. The surface of this solid ice cube is smaller than the interface between the meandering ice formations and water before. The power needed by the heat pump has to be pushed through a smaller surface – which is only possible if the temperature gradient within the ice gets larger. As the temperature at the ice-water interface has to be 0°C, the temperature at the heat exchanger has to decrease. This is exactly what we see from monitoring data – brine temperature drops well below 0°C.
- Side-effect: Due to the lower brine temperature the coefficient of performance decreases slightly. So more of the total heating energy needs to be provided by the electrical input. We call this the heat source paradox: The worse performance is, the more you spare the energy stored in the heat source. Thanks to this self-protection mechanism, the energy in the tank will not suddenly drop to zero.
Phase 2: Ice touching ground.
- As long as there is some water between ice and ground, the water temperature is 0°C. This is the temperature ground ‘sees’ and the temperature which is relevant for the low heat transport from ground to water.
- Ice touches some surfaces of the cuboid tank – the ones where the heat exchanger tubes are closest to the surface. Now ground is directly connected to ice with its temperatures < 0°C. The temperature gradient between ground and ice provides for a higher flow of energy. This is also indicated by the evolution of the temperature in the ground below the tank: While temperatures of undisturbed ground and the region below the tank had been aligned before, ground temperature beneath the tank still kept getting lower – although a few meters away from the tank ground is already warming up again.
- If enough heat is delivered by ground, no more heat is needed by freezing the remaining water in the tank. When ground temperature reaches zero, it can even freeze – which happens with geothermal systems, too. We might have extended the ice storage into ground.
Heat transport within ice is actually more efficient than transport in water: Ice has 4 times the heat conductivity of water, and 10 times the thermal diffusivity. The latter is a measure for the time a deposited ‘lump of heat’ will be spread in space.
So we have built a very efficient cold bridge between the heat exchanger and ground. Everything is consistent with the poetry of the differential equation of heat transfer.
I marvel at the intriguing and mathematically appealing physics in my backyard!