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The study of phenomena that involve both thermodynamics and acoustics. A sound wave in a gas is usually regarded as consisting of coupled pressure and displacement oscillations, but temperature oscillations accompany the pressure oscillations. When there are spatial gradients in the oscillating temperature, oscillating heat flow also occurs. The combination of these four oscillations produces a rich variety of thermoacoustic effects. See Acoustics, Oscillation, Sound, Thermodynamic principles

Although the oscillating heat transfer at solid boundaries does contribute significantly to the dissipation of sound in enclosures such as buildings, thermoacoustic effects are usually too small to be obviously noticeable in everyday life. However, thermoacoustic effects in intense sound waves inside suitable cavities can be harnessed to produce extremely powerful pulsating combustion, thermoacoustic refrigerators, and thermoacoustic engines.

Pulsating combustion

Oscillations can occur whenever combustion takes place in a cavity. In industrial equipment and residential appliances, these oscillations are sometimes encouraged in order to stir or pump the combustion ingredients, while in rocket engines such oscillations must usually be suppressed because they can damage the rocket structure. The oscillations occur spontaneously if the combustion progresses more rapidly or efficiently during the compression phase of the pressure oscillation than during the rarefaction (expansion) phase—the Rayleigh criterion. See Gas dynamics

Thermoacoustic refrigerators

Thermoacoustic refrigerators use acoustic power to pump heat from a low temperature to ambient temperature (see illustration). The heat-pumping mechanism takes place in the pores of a structure called a stack. As a typical parcel of the gas oscillates along a pore, it experiences changes in temperature. Most of the temperature change comes from adiabatic compression and expansion of the gas by the sound pressure, and the rest is a consequence of the local temperature of the solid wall of the pore. A thermodynamic cycle results from the coupled pressure, temperature, position, and heat oscillations. The overall effect, much as in a bucket brigade, is the net transport of heat from the cold heat exchanger to room temperature. See Adiabatic process, Sound pressure, Thermodynamic processes

An early standing-wave thermoacoustic refrigerator that cooled to -60°C (-76°F)enlarge picture
An early standing-wave thermoacoustic refrigerator that cooled to -60°C (-76°F)

Thermoacoustic engines

While standing-wave thermoacoustic systems have matured only recently, Stirling engines and refrigerators have a long, rich history. New insights have resulted from applying thermoacoustics to Stirling systems, treating them as traveling-wave thermoacoustic systems in which the extrema in pressure and gas motion are approximately 90° out of phase in time. In the thermoacoustic-Stirling engine, the thermodynamic cycle is accomplished in a traveling-wave acoustic network, and acoustic power is produced from heat with an efficiency of 30%.

McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Physics. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


The study of phenomena that involve both thermodynamics and acoustics.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
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