The ElKaWe (for Electrocaloric Heat Pumps) proejct aims to develop a solid state heat pump including electrocaloric systems that work with harmless fluids such as water. Current heat pumps work almost exclusively on the basis of compressor technology which requires harmful refrigerants. Caloric systems are also noiseless, which is important for the air conditioning of electric vehicles, for example.
Heat dissipation has so far proved to be a bottleneck in the efficiency of electrocaloric solid state heat pump systems: the faster it takes place, the more powerful the pump is. Preliminary studies have shown that this can be achieved much more quickly with the new concept. The systems operate without active pumping and thus achieve a much higher cycle frequency than previous systems. The aim is to have a demonstrator with an output of 100 watts and a temperature range of 30 K in four years' time.
When an electric field is applied to electrocaloric materials, the electric moments in the field are aligned – the material heats up. The resulting heat is dissipated via a heat sink so that the material cools down again to its initial temperature. If the electric field is removed now, the order of the electric moments is reduced and the material cools down. At this stage it can absorb thermal energy from a heat source. The effect is reversible. In this way, a cycle can be set up that functions as an efficient heat pump for cooling or heating.
"We are convinced that there is an opportunity to completely replace compressor-based heat pumps in the long term," said Prof. Karsten Buse, Executive director at Fraunhofer IPM, who is in charge of the project. "According to the knowledge we have gained in this field to date, electrocalorics can have disruptive potential for heating and cooling technology".
Electrocaloric heat pumps promise a significantly higher degree of efficiency, which will promote the spread of heat pumps for air conditioning in buildings. In refrigeration technology, the research team focuses primarily on industrial cooling technology, vehicle air conditioning, server and control cabinet cooling and laboratory refrigerators.
In principle, the technology is also suitable for household cooling technology. Most manufacturers are now switching to natural refrigerants such as isobutane or propane. Although the latter are not environmentally harmful, they are highly explosive, which is why they are out of question for safety-critical applications – such as in industry or the automotive sector.