Thermal energy is a leading topic of discussion in energy conservation and environmental fields. Specifically for large-scale applications solar energy and concentrated solar power (CSP) systems use techniques that include thermal energy storage systems and phase change materials to harvest energy. However, on the smaller centimeter scale, there have been historically fewer investigations of these same techniques. The main goal of this paper is to investigate thermal energy storage (TES) as applied to a small scale system for thermal energy capture. Typical large-scale TES consists of a phase change material that usually employs a wax or oil medium held within a conductive container. The system stores the energy when the wax medium undergoes a phase change. In typical applications like buildings, the system absorbs and stores incoming thermal energy during the day, and releases it back to the surrounding environment as temperatures cool at night.
This paper presents a new TES unit designed to integrate with a thermoelectric for energy harvesting application in small, cm-scale applications. In this manner, the TES serves as a thermal battery and source for the thermoelectric, even when originating power supply is interrupted. A unique feature of this TES is the inclusion of internal heat pipes. These heat pipes are fabricated from copper tubing and filled with working fluid, mounted vertically, and immersed in the wax medium of the TES. This transfers heat to the wax by means of thermal conductivity enhancement as an element of the heat pipe operation. This represents a first of its kind in this small-scale, thermal harvesting application.
As tested, the TES rests atop a low temperature (60 °C) heat source with a heat sink as the final setup component. The heat sink serves to simulate thermal energy rejection to a future thermoelectric device. To measure the temperature change of the device, thermocouples are placed on either side of the TES, and a third placed on the heat source to ensure that the energy input is appropriate and constant. Heat flux sensors (HFS) are placed between the heat source and the TES and between the TES and heat sink to monitor heat transferred to and from the device.
The TES is tested in a variety constructions as part of this effort. Basic design of the storage volume as well as fluid fill levels within the heat pipes are considered. Varying thermal energy inputs are also studied. Temperature and heat flux data are compared to show the thermal absorption capability and operating average thermal conductivities of the TES units. The baseline average thermal conductivity of the TES is approximately 0.5 W/mK. This represents the TES with wax alone filling the internal volume. Results indicate a fully functional, heat pipe TES capable of 8.23 W/mK.