Los Alamos National Laboratory

Los Alamos National Laboratory

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Father of the heat pipe passes away

First used to cook a turkey, heat pipes are now used in spacecraft and computers.
July 18, 2019
Heat pipe

First used to cook a turkey, heat pipes are now used in spacecraft and computers.

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"If you’re reading this on a laptop, you’re likely using a heat pipe."

In the 1960s, Laboratory scientist George Erickson thought a new device he was working on for the Rover nuclear rocket program could fix the problem his family regularly faced around the holidays: their pre-convection-era oven kept producing a holiday turkey that was browned on the outside, but cold in the middle.

Facing another underdone dinner, Erickson grabbed a basic version of his work project, which resembled a simple metal tube, and jammed it into the turkey before putting the bird back into the oven.

Erickson’s tube held liquid and a wick-like material running from top to bottom. As the liquid heated up, it vaporized, condensing at the end of the pipe and releasing heat into the turkey’s core before traveling back along the wick to restart the journey. This process efficiently brought consistent heat to the turkey’s core, cooking it evenly. Erickson’s device—called a heat pipe—had worked.

Today, the heat pipe is one of the Laboratory’s most widely used products, with applications on domestic, industrial, and extraterrestrial scales. In fact, if you’re reading this on a laptop, you’re likely using one—it’s dissipating heat from the microchips under your keyboard.

Heat pipes also work well in zero-gravity environments and have been used to manage temperatures inside spacecraft so that heat generated by electronics doesn’t damage equipment.

In 1996, the space shuttle Endeavour carried three Laboratory heat pipes that operated at temperatures above 900°F. During the past 20 years, the Laboratory has also worked with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in developing heat pipes to generate electricity and propulsion in spacecraft designed to journey to the solar system’s outer limits.

Early practical heat pipes used mostly low-temperature working fluids such as water, but water has been replaced by liquid metals in recent practical applications, such as Kilopower, a new reactor that uses liquid sodium in the heat pipes it leverages to create versatile power sources in remote locations, such as Mars.

Although Laboratory physicists George Grover and Ted Cotter are largely credited with propelling the heat pipe into the science mainstream, it was Erickson’s hands-on production of the first prototype that formed the basis for the device’s eventual widespread use.

“Grover had the notion, but Dad put the concept into practice,” says Erickson’s son Andy, who is the Laboratory's Global Security Programs director. “I have proof he built the first demonstrated heat pipes: the original blank is hanging on my wall.”

George Erickson retired from the Laboratory in 1992. He died peacefully in Los Alamos on March 5, 2019.


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In 1996, the space shuttle Endeavour carried three Laboratory heat pipes. Photo: NASA.