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Solar & Alternative Energy
Fundamental limits to nearfield radiative heat transfer
Owen D. Miller, Alejandro W. Rodriguez and Steven G. Johnson
A new approach, based on simple physical principles, is used to obtain upper bounds for the energy exchange rate between closely separated bodies and indicates the potential for more efficient thermal devices.
1 November 2016, SPIE Newsroom. DOI: 10.1117/2.1201610.006706
In radiant heat exchange, electromagnetic energy is radiated from a warm body to a cooler one.^{1–3} This kind of heat exchange can, for example, power a thermophotovoltaic cell. A ‘blackbody’—a structure that absorbs and emits optical rays with perfect efficiency—is the thermodynamic ideal of such a radiator. According to the canonical Stefan–Boltzmann law, which arises from the blackbody concept, the thermal radiation emanating from any large body is limited. The law also describes the maximum radiativeenergy exchange rate between bodies that are separated by macroscopic distances. As the separation between the bodies shrinks to microscopic distances, however, the concept of a blackbody loses meaning, i.e., light can no longer be treated as a bundle of rays that intersect/bypass a scattering body.
It was recognized half a century ago that the macroscopic blackbody limit can be surpassed in the closely spaced nearfield regime by bodies that exchange ‘frustrated’ evanescent energy (at a level far beyond the exchange of radiating waves).^{4} However, in that analysis, as well as in more recent extensions of blackbodylike limits to the nearfield regime,^{5, 6} highly symmetric structures—for which the evanescent states can be ‘counted’ a priori—are required. This approach has limited generality and thus an important question remains: what is the maximum possible radiative heat transfer rate in the nearfield regime?
In our work,^{7} we have therefore developed a new approach^{8} to answer this outstanding question. Through our method we obtain upper bounds for the radiative heat transfer rate that depend only on the material properties and separation distance of the bodies, and that are otherwise independent of structural details. To avoid the difficulty of counting evanescent waves, we instead focus on the total stored energy of the evanescent field near the emitter (which is finite at nonzero separations). We also combine this alternate perspective with energyconservation insight that we recently gained^{9} for general wavescattering problems (i.e., we discovered the currents that can be excited in a lossy/emissive medium are limited by a particular formulation of the optical theorem^{10}) and thus yield the new upper bounds that apply to generic nearfield radiative heat transfer.
The difference between the farfieldblackbody and the nearfield heat transfer cases are depicted schematically in Figure 1. The farfield energy exchange is limited by the optical scattering properties of each individual body in isolation, and is bounded by the heat that radiates from the hot body at a rate of σT^{4}A (where σ is the Stefan–Boltzmann constant, T is the temperature of the hot body, and A is the surface area). In contrast, for the nearfield case, a significant evanescentwave intensity can build up between the bodies when they are close enough. This leads to our newly formulated bound,^{8} which depends (for all frequencies) only on the temperatures, separation distance (d), and material susceptibilities (χ) of the two bodies. For simplicity, in both cases, we take the temperatures of the hot and cold body to be T and zero, respectively, but it is easy to extend our approach to two nonzero temperatures. For a suitable bandwidth that commonly describes resonant plasmonic interactions, we can integrate our spectral bound to yield the nearfield expression shown in Figure 1. This result is proportional to the farfield blackbody expression, but has an additional nearfield enhancement factor, i.e. (λ_{T}/d)^{2}, where λ_{T} is the peak emission wavelength of the thermal emitter. Our nearfield expression also includes a material enhancement factor—χ^{3}/Imχ (where Im denotes the imaginary component)—which corresponds to the potential for field amplification (as seen in plasmonic resonators^{11, 12}).
Figure 1. Schematic illustration of the different principles underlying exchange of thermal radiation—i.e., from a hot (red) to cold (blue) body—in the farfield (left) and nearfield (right) regimes. Farfield radiative heat transfer between large bodies is limited by blackbody physics, for which the absorption/emission properties of each body in isolation determine the energy transfer rate. The upper bound for the transfer rate is given by the expression σT^{4}A, where σ is the Stefan–Boltzmann constant, T is the temperature of the hot body, and A is the surface area. In contrast, nearfield heat transfer is determined by the absorption/emission properties of the bodies in tandem. In the new formulation for this case, the maximum transfer rate at any frequency is the farfield rate scaled by nearfield and materialenhancement factors. The expression for the nearfield heat transfer shows the bound integrated over a bandwidth relevant to metallic resonators, where λ_{T} is the peak emission wavelength of the thermal emitter, d is the separation distance between the bodies, and χ is the material susceptibility of the bodies. Im: Imaginary component.
In general, bounds serve to identify the fundamental limiting processes of a system. They can also be used to provide design goals that drive innovation within a field. A key question with respect to the latter is whether our bounds can be reached through careful design of the emitter and absorber. In our study, we find that our bounds can be reached within a factor of two—see Figure 2(a)—when one of the bodies is small enough to be dipolar. For radiative heat transfer between two largearea bodies, however, we find—see Figure 2(b)—that commonly used highsymmetry structures fall far short of the bounds. We believe that this shortcoming arises from a type of destructive interference between the nearfield waves, which is manifest in the repulsion between the surface waves bound to each surface, as their separation is reduced. New designs that approach the bounds could thus offer two orders of magnitude improvement over planar systems, with significant potential for energy applications.
Figure 2. Computations of radiative heat transfer in common systems, compared with material and separationdictated upper bounds (limits). ^{8} (a) Sphere–sphere (orange) and sphere–plate (blue) systems, near their plasmonic resonant frequencies, can approach their respective bounds within a factor of two, and thus serve as examples of ideal nearfield radiativeenergy exchange. r: Radius of sphere. ω: Frequency. ω _{p}: Plasma frequency. c: Speed of light. (b) Typical largearea highsymmetry structures, e.g., various metamaterials and thin films, fall far short of the general limits because of destructiveinterference effects that arise as the structures approach each other. γ: Damping rate of a standard Drude material model.
In summary, we have devised a new method to calculate the maximum possible radiative heat transfer rate in the newfield regime. In our new formulation, the upper bound is obtained (for any frequency) by scaling the maximum farfield transfer rate by nearfield and materialenhancement factors. The difference between our newly developed bounds and current largearea approaches suggests that there is room for significant future design improvements. Indeed, thermophotovoltaic cells (i.e., which convert heat energy to electromagnetic radiation, tailored to the optimal spectral response of a photovoltaic cell) offer a promising application of such advances, where increased radiation rates could lower the operational temperatures and improve the energy–conversion efficiency.^{13} It has only recently become possible to calculate radiative heat transfer between nonplanar bodies^{14–17} (and experimental tests are similarly recent^{18, 19}), but the promise of potential improvement by using suitably patterned surfaces may provide the necessary impetus for further computational, theoretical, and experimental studies with the aim of ultimately achieving an ideal nearfield thermal radiator. Our aim is to use computational tools to probe the large, mostly unexplored design space and to find structures that converge to the theoretical limits.
Owen Miller and Steven Johnson were supported by the US Army Research Office, through the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (contract W911NF07D0004), and by the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research Multidisciplinary Research Program of the University Research Initiative (FA95500910704). Alejandro Rodriguez was supported by the National Science Foundation (grant DMR1454836).
Owen D. Miller
Department of Applied Physics and Energy Sciences Institute Yale University
New Haven, CT
Alejandro W. Rodriguez
Department of Electrical Engineering Princeton University
Princeton, NJ
Steven G. Johnson
Department of Mathematics Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, MA
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