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Critical Heat Flux

Key Takeaways

  • Critical heat flux is the point at which the heat transfer rate reaches its maximum limit. 

  • Critical heat flux is influenced by factors such as the heating surface geometry, heat flux, velocity, pressure, temperature, and surface conditions. 

  • Accuracy in the prediction of the onset of critical heat flux is important for making design optimization decisions required to maximize the heat transfer capacity of the fluid system.

Critical heat flux

Many fluid engineering systems rely on efficient heat transfer mechanisms to ensure improved performance and safety of the system. An example of this is the aircraft systems where analysis of heat transfer, temperature distribution, and thermal stresses is important for analyzing structural damages and optimizing the material design, or heating/cooling system design for aerodynamic safety. 

Heat flux is an important parameter in the thermal analysis of the fluid system — critical heat flux, in particular. Understanding the onset of critical heat flux is important for engineers to make decisions regarding the design optimizations required to maximize the heat transfer capacity of the fluid system.  

Understanding Critical Heat Flux and Affecting Parameters

Critical heat flux is a thermal limit at which the heat transfer rate in a fluid system reaches its maximum point. Beyond this point, the heat transfer rate drops significantly due to the formation of a vapor layer which acts as insulation and prevents further heat transfer.  

A simple example to explain critical heat flux is the process of boiling. When the pot is placed on a heated surface, the heat flux gradually increases, causing the pot to heat up and the water to eventually boil. A further increase in heat flux makes the boiling process more vigorous. At the point when the heat flux value is maximum, the boiling becomes unstable and leads to the formation of a layer of vapor bubbles. This is the onset of critical heat flux, where the heat transfer rate abruptly decreases due to the lower thermal conductivity of the vapor layer compared to that of the liquid. 

Operating the system above the onset of critical heat flux can lead to overheating and failure. The prediction of this value is thus an important part of designing and optimizing the heat transfer system. However, there are several parameters that affect the prediction of critical heat flux in fluid system simulation. 

Factors Affecting Critical Heat Flux


Influence on Critical Heat Flux

Heating surface geometry

The shape and size of the heating surface can influence the rate of heat transfer and onset for critical heat flux (CHF)

Heat flux

Higher thermal heat flux can cause earlier onset of CHF

Surface condition

Surface roughness can affect the nucleation* and growth of vapor bubbles

Flow velocity

Higher flow velocity can increase heat transfer rate and delay the onset of CHF and vice versa

Inlet temperature

Higher inlet temperature means higher heat transfer rates and delayed onset of CHF and vice versa


An increase in pressure raises the boiling point and saturation temperature and vice versa

*Nucleation — formation of bubbles on the heating surface during boiling

Leveraging Critical Heat Flux Analysis for Maximizing Heat Transfer

Despite the challenges, engineers put critical importance on critical heat flux prediction for maximizing the heat transfer efficiency of the fluid system. This can be done through CFD analysis which facilitates leveraging critical heat flux for:

  1. Design optimization

CFD analysis provides engineers with a deeper understanding of complex fluid dynamics and thermal processes involved in the heat transfer process. The system can be designed to operate below the point of onset of critical heat flux to maximize the heat transfer rate without causing a sudden drop in the heat transfer coefficient. This optimization in design improves the performance and efficiency of the fluid system. 

  1. Material selection

In the system operating above the onset of critical heat flux, components can be exposed to significant thermal stress, leading to material failure. The CFD analysis and calculation of the onset of critical heat flux allows engineers to select the material that can withstand the thermal stresses associated with the maximum rate of heat transfer. 

  1. Safety analysis

When the system operates above the onset of critical heat flux, there is a sharp decrease in the heat transfer coefficient while a rapid increase in the temperature of the heating surface occu. This sudden temperature increase can cause equipment failure and other safety hazards. The accurate CFD analysis of the onset value means the heat transfer system can be designed to operate within the safety limits to avoid damage to the system. 

  1. Performance efficiency

CFD analysis of the critical heat flux allows engineers to identify the optimal design parameters for heat transfer surfaces as well as simulate the ideal flow conditions in the heat transfer system. This prevents exceeding the onset value of critical heat flux and maximizes the heat transfer to improve system efficiency and reliability. 

Improve System Efficiency and Maximize Heat Transfer

In fluidic and thermal system design, the accurate prediction of critical heat flux helps in the optimization of design so it can maximize the heat transfer capacity. The comprehensive and iterative approach of CFD simulation can help ensure accuracy in prediction through high-fidelity modeling and simulation. High-resolution meshing allows for fine modeling of the flow and heat transfer phenomenon. CFD simulation can also use approaches such as empirical correlation to predict the onset of critical heat flux. Through valuable insight into fluidics and thermodynamics, the fluid system can be optimized for maximized efficiency and improved performance. 

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About the Author

With an industry-leading meshing approach and a robust host of solver and post-processing capabilities, Cadence Fidelity provides a comprehensive Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) workflow for applications including propulsion, aerodynamics, hydrodynamics, and combustion.

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