Heat pumps for space heating are all very similar: Refrigerant evaporates, pressure is increased by a scroll compressor, refrigerant condenses, pressure is reduced in an expansion value. *yawn*
The question is:
Can a compression heat pump be built in a completely different way?
Austrian start-up ECOP did it: They invented the so-called Rotation Heat Pump.
It does not have a classical compressor, and the ‘refrigerant’ does not undergo a phase transition. A pressure gradient is created by centrifugal forces: The whole system rotates, including the high-pressure (heat sink) and low-pressure (source) heat exchanger. The low pressure part of the system is positioned closer to the center of the rotation axis, and heat sink and heat source are connected at the axis (using heating water). The system rotates at up to 1800 rounds per minute. The process is explained in this video by ECOP.
A mixture of noble gases is used in a closed Joule (Brayton) process, driven in a cycle by a ventilator. Gas is compressed and thus heated up; then it is cooled at constant pressure and energy is released to the heat sink. After expanding the gas, it is heated up again at low pressure by the heat source.
In the textbook Joule cycle, a turbine and a compressor share a common axis: The energy released by the turbine is used to drive the compressor. This is essential, as compression and expansion energies are of the same order of magnitude, and both are considerably larger than the net energy difference – the actual input energy.
In contrast to that, a classical compression heat pump uses a refrigerant that is condensed while releasing heat and then evaporated again at low pressure. There is no mini-turbine to reduce the pressure but only an expansion valve, as there is not much energy to gain.
This explains why the Rotation Heat Pumps absolutely have to have compression efficiencies of nearly 100%, compared to, say, 85% efficiency of a scroll compressor in heat pump used for space heating:
Some numbers for a Joule process (from this German ECOP paper): On expansion of the gas 1200kW are gained, but 1300kW are needed for compression – if there would be no losses at all. So the net input power is 100kW. But if the efficiency of the compression is reduced from 100% to 80% about 1600kW are needed and thus a net input power of 500kW – five times the power compared to the ideal compressor! The coefficient of performance would plummet from 10 to 2,3.
I believe these challenging requirements are why Rotation Heat Pumps are ‘large’ and built for industrial processes. In addition to the high COP, this heat pump is also very versatile: Since there are no phase transitions, you can pick your favorite corner of the thermodynamic state diagram at will: This heat pump works for very different combinations temperatures of the hot target and the cold source.