UY1: Heat pumps

Heat pumps (refrigerators): The reverse of heat engines

A heat pump is a device that uses mechanical energy to pump heat from a cold to a hot reservoir.

If the heat engine is run in reverse, one gets a heat pump.

In an analogous way, the heat pump must carry some working substance (usually a liquefiable gas) through a cyclic process, during which

  • mechanical work is done on the working substance (Win),
  • the working substance absorbs heat (Qc) from a cold reservoir, and
  • discharges heat (Qh) to a hot reservoir to return to the initial state, and the cycle repeats.

Examples of heat pumps: Refrigerators, air-conditioners.


Schematic of a refrigerator

refrigeratorRefrigerators and aircons use fluorinated hydrocarbons such as Freon-12, Freon-22, etc, which can be compressed to a liquid by mechanical work. The liquid is pumped into the cold reservoir to be kept cool and allowed to evaporate to the gas state. The liquid thus absorbs heat of vaporization in the process. This heat of vaporization is then dumped into the hot reservoir outside the refrigerator where the gas is compressed back into the liquid state.

A few mechanical details of a heat pump

refrigerator 2

  1. The compressor delivers a gas, typically CCl2F2 or another member of the “Freon” family, at high temperature and pressure to condenser coil B.
  2. Heat is removed from the gas by water or air cooling, resulting in condensation to a liquid under high pressure.
  3. The liquid passes through the throttling valve to emerge as a mixture of liquid and vapor at a low temperature.
  4. In evaporator coil D, the liquid absorbs heat and evaporates into the vapor, which enters the compressor and repeats the cycle.

The cooling function is exploited in refrigerators and air-cons, while the heating function is exploited in heat pumps.

Schematic of a heat pump in cooling mode (aircon)

Heat pump in cooling mode

Schematic of a heat pump in heating mode

heat pump in heating
Heat pump in heating mode

Schematic of a home air-con (combined unit)

Home aircon

Why use heat pumps?

Heat pumps make better use of electrical (and other forms of) energy because they can use one unit of electrical energy to transfer more than one unit of heat from a cold to a hot region.

  • If you use an electric resistance heater, you can only heat up your house (or your water) with 1 kWh of heat for every kWh of electrical energy.
  • If you use a heat pump instead, you can use the same 1 kWh of electrical energy to “pump” typically 3 – 4 kWh of heat (given by the coefficient of heating) from the cooler outside surroundings into your house (or your hot water) for heating. So, with 1 kWh of electrical power, you can get 4 – 5 kWh of heat into your house.


Next: Heat Engines – Thermal Efficiency

Previous: Isochoric & Isobaric Process

Back To Thermodynamics

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2 thoughts on “UY1: Heat pumps”

  1. I think Heat pumps are significantly more energy-efficient than simple electrical resistance heaters. The efficiency begins to decrease as the temperature difference between the heat source and sink increases. This loss of efficiency due to a fluctuating outdoor air temperature is a driving factor for the use of ground source heat pumps. The typical installation cost is also higher than that of a resistance heater.

  2. I think High-efficiency heat pumps also dehumidify better than standard central air conditioners, resulting in less energy usage and more cooling comfort in summer months.” Heat pumps yield more heat compared to the amount of electricity it takes to run them than older types of electric furnaces or heaters.


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