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Renewable Energy 29 (2004) 13671382

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Technical note
Heat transfer dynamics in an inatable-tunnel
solar air heater
A. Flores-Irigollen
a,
, J.L. Fernandez
b
, E. Rubio-Cerda
c
,
F.T. Poujol
a
a
Departamento de Ingeniera en Pesqueras, Universidad Auto noma de Baja California Sur, La Paz, BCS,
23080, Mexico
b
Instituto de Ingeniera, Universidad Nacional Auto noma de Me xico, Mexico City 04510, Mexico
c
CIBNOR, Apdo. Postal 128, La Paz, BCS 23000, Mexico
Received 1 November 2003; accepted 15 November 2003
Abstract
A mathematical model that describes the dynamics of the heat transfer in an inatable-
tunnel solar collector for air heating is proposed and validated. The model is distributed-
parameters, one-dimensional and unsteady-state. It considers the thermal inertia of a pebble
bed acting as the absorber surface and is constituted by three equations that describe the
temperature distributions of the three system components: polyethylene cover, transfer uid
(air) and absorber surface.
To solve the governing equations, a novel numerical scheme that diers from the standard
method of nite dierences in the form of generating the discretization equations is pro-
posed. In this scheme, the dimensionless versions of the equations are reduced to linear
canonical forms of rst order and then are solved analytically in small spatial domains to
produce discretization equations in an explicit form.
To validate the quality of the present model, some experimental tests in a 50 m long
inatable-tunnel solar collector were carried out. Results of the model compare favorably
with experimental results.
# 2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Inatable-tunnel; Mathematical model; Simulation; Numerical scheme; Validation; Solar air
heater

Corresponding author. Tel.: +52-612-123-88-00; fax: +52-612-128-08-01.


E-mail address: aores@uabcs.mx (A. Flores-Irigollen).
0960-1481/$ - see front matter #2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1016/j.renene.2003.11.004
Nomenclature
A
c
collector eective area, m
2
c specic heat, J/kgK
e average thickness of pebble bed, m
G global solar radiation, W/m
2
h
1
convective heat transfer coecient between cover and uid, W/m
2
K
h
2
convective heat transfer coecient between absorber and uid,
W/m
2
K
h
rca
radiative heat transfer coecient between cover and ambient, W/m
2
K
h
rpc
radiative heat transfer coecient between absorber and cover,
W/m
2
K
K
1
A
c
/(mc)
f
K
2
h
rpc
K
1
K
3
U
b
K
1
L collector length, m
L
a
arc length of the segment-circulate section, m
m air mass ow rate, kg/s
Nu Nusselt number, hD
H
/k
f
NTU number of transfer units
NUT
1
h
2
K
1
NUT
2
h
1
L
a
L/(mc)
f
Pr Prandtl number, lc
f
/k
f
r reectance
Re Reynolds number, qvD
H
/l
S absorbed energy by the pebbles, W/m
2
T temperature,
v
C
U
b
thermal conductance toward the ground, W/m
2
K
U
t
combined convection and radiation coecient, W/m
2
K
V
w
wind speed, m/s
x spatial coordinate, m
X dimensionless spatial coordinate
Greek letters
e void fraction in the pebble layer
e
c
cover emittance
e
p
absorber emittance
q density, kg/m
3
r StefanBoltzmann constant
h dimensionless time
Subscripts
c cover
A. Flores-Irigollen et al. / Renewable Energy 29 (2004) 13671382 1368
1. Introduction
The current interest in thermal energy recovery and in the use of non-conven-
tional energy sources is increasing due to the implicit goodness of the renewable
energy resources. The published literature is very extensive, particularly in the pho-
tothermic conversion area of solar energy for low temperature applications.
Diverse studies tending to improve the thermal eciency of solar air heaters
have been carried out by Prasad and Saini [1], Cortes and Piacenti [2], and Gupta
et al. [3]. They discuss the eect of various design and operating parameters on the
eective eciency and conclude that heat transfer can be enhanced by using arti-
cial roughness.
In these topics, Due and Beckman [4] constitute a basic reference. They present
six dierent solar air heaters designs and the corresponding equations for calcu-
lation of the collector eciency factors and the global conductance U
L
for those
geometries, and show a procedure to derive these parameters starting from a
steady-state lumped parameters model in the case of a single-pass air heater.
A parametric study of a at plate solar air heater was carried out by Yadav et al.
[5], following a transient approach. Their prototype is very similar to conventional
solar air heaters, and it diers from these only in the air gap below the absorber
surface. In that paper, the authors derive explicit expressions for the cover, air and
absorber plate temperatures by means of the analytic solution of the governing
equations. Air temperature is presented as a function of time and space coordi-
nates. The one-dimensional transient model considered there includes the thermal
inertia in the uid equation, but it neglects the cover and absorber plate thermal
capacitances. The inclusion of the thermal inertia in the other components would
complicate the obtaining of an analytic solution due to the presence of radiative
nonlinear terms. The study did not include comparisons with experimental mea-
surements.
Another study, very similar to the previous work, is presented by Aboul-Enein
et al. [6]. In that work a suspended at-plate solar air heater with and without sto-
rage material is analyzed following a transient approach. The governing equations
that describe the thermal performance of the system without thermal storage
include again the thermal capacitance in the uid equation, and the analytical
treatment of these equations is identical. For the system with storage material they
modify the absorber plate equation and, additionally, they include an equation for
calc calculated
exp experimental
f uid
p pebble
s sky
1 reference to the ambient
1369 A. Flores-Irigollen et al. / Renewable Energy 29 (2004) 13671382
the thermal storage. They study the eect of diverse design parameters such as
length, width, gap spacing between the absorber and glass cover, mass ow rate
and thickness of storage material, and conclude that the thermal eciency of the
air heater with sensible storage materials is considerably higher than that without
storage. An optimum thickness of the storage material of about 0.12 m is found to
be convenient for drying dierent agriculture products. Their numerical calcula-
tions are in good agreement with their experimental results.
Medved et al. [7] presented the study of an inatable solar collector of hemi-
spherical geometry. Their prototype is 40.8 cm in diameter and the absorber is a 10
cm high and 6.5 cm diameter can. They developed a transient model of lumped
parameters to analyze the thermal behavior of such a heater and wrote the energy
balance equations as a set of four algebraic equations, which were solved by using
the inverse matrix method. They found good agreement between the measured and
numerically determined average specic solar radiation on the absorber surface.
The dierences never exceeded 7.0%.
A study about the determination of the channel optimum depth-to-length ratio
for a conventional solar air heater operating at constant ow was presented by
Hegazy [8]. In that work, an optimal value which maximizes the collector useful
energy is estimated. To analyze the dynamic performance of the collector a steady-
state and lumped parameters approach was used. The energy balance equations of
the collector components are solved using an iterative solution technique. Also, a
parametric analysis to verify the credibility of the proposed criterion was carried
out. His numerical results demonstrated the accuracy of the criterion over an
experimental range of inuencing factors (design parameters and operating con-
ditions). For optimum geometry, this author found that the ratio of useful energy
to its maximum value varies from 81 to 96% and concluded that the channel
depth-to-length ratio has a relevant role in determining the rate of useful heat gain.
Recently, Ahmad [9] investigated the thermal performance and eciency of a
solar air heater made from plastic packing lm. His prototype is a 5 m long and
0.36 m diameter single-sheet cylindrical collector, with a black interior band cover-
ing the lower part of the internal section (30%). To analyze the thermal behavior of
that collector, a lumped parameter and steady-state approach is utilized. The pro-
cedure is similar to the methodology reported by Due and Beckman [4] for the
analysis of a solar at plate collector. He concludes that the collector performance
compared with the single-sheet collector can be considerably enhanced by using
transparent insulation (bubble lm).
The present paper shows a mathematical model that describes the dynamics of
the heat transfer in an inatable-tunnel solar air heater, with a thin pebble bed act-
ing as absorber surface, and a numerical solution proposed for the set of equations
forming the model. Details of the model and the proposed solution are presented
in Sections 3 and 4, respectively. This work is also an eort to achieve a better
understanding of the processes of heat transfer and to develop a reliable computa-
tional tool that helps in the design of these solar units.
It is worthwhile mentioning, in connection with this work, that the high inso-
lation indexes (solar radiation levels) in Southern Baja California, Mexico, allow
A. Flores-Irigollen et al. / Renewable Energy 29 (2004) 13671382 1370
one to take advantage of the solar energy through their photothermic conversion
for solar drying applications and thus justify the development of this type of
research.
2. Experimental device and instrumentation
The equipment that is the subject of study in this research is a 50 m long and 5
m wide inatable-tunnel solar collector. It has the form of a duct of truncated-cir-
cle cross section (A
t
3:02 m
2
) with maximum height at the center of 0.85 m
(Fig. 1). The absorber surface is a pebble layer, painted in black color, with an
average thickness of 5.5 cm and an eective collection area of 245 m
2
. Its cover is a
plastic lm of semi-transparent polyethylene, 178 microns in thickness, with UV
treatment, held to metallic structural proles in the absorber perimeter.
Fig. 2 shows a general view of the absorber surface and the metallic arcs struc-
ture that functions as support to the polyethylene cover. It also shows the outlet
nozzle, whose dimensions in the discharge area are 1.10 m wide and 0.80 m high.
In the background of the gure, a control board is observed. Adjacent to it there is
Fig. 1. Schematic view of the inatable-tunnel solar collector.
1371 A. Flores-Irigollen et al. / Renewable Energy 29 (2004) 13671382
an electric motor coupled by means of transmission bands to a centrifugal fan that
impels the air through the tunnel.
Air velocities both inside and outside the tunnel were measured by means of a
three-cup anemometer that features a quick response and low inertia sensor, which
has an electric generator with an output frequency proportional to the rotation
velocity, and 1% linearity. This anemometer also features a frequency meter
implemented with a digital counter that is controlled by a microprocessor.
Solar radiation was measured with an Eppley black and white pyranometer,
attached to a conditioner card with a current to voltage converter and a voltage
amplier that yields readings in the range of 0 to 1100 W/m
2
. This apparatus was
calibrated against a precision spectral pyranometer that yields a 3% error. The
pyranometer calibration constant is 9:8 10
6
V=Wm
2
.
Temperature was measured with copper-constantan thermocouples connected to
a dierential analog to digital converter, which has a 16-bit resolution, program-
mable range, 0.05% accuracy and an RS485 interface.
The utilized software for data acquisition was developed in Lab Windows CVI,
wich is a C programming language. The software allows the storage of data on
disk and its presentation in graphic and numerical form on display.
Fig. 2. View of the absorber surface.
A. Flores-Irigollen et al. / Renewable Energy 29 (2004) 13671382 1372
3. Theoretical analysis
The diverse physical phenomena of heat transfer that should be modeled are
represented in Fig. 3.
At some point on the surface in the ow direction, the absorbed solar energy S
heats the black pebbles to a temperature Tp. Energy is transferred from the absor-
ber surface to the circulating uid (air) at a rate characterized by a convection heat
transfer coecient h
2
, also by conduction to the ground by means of a loss coef-
cient U
b
, and to the bottom of the polyethylene cover through a linearized radiat-
ive coecient h
rpc
. At the same time, a part of the energy won by the uid is
transferred to the cover through a convective coecient h
1
and nally, another
part is lost to the atmosphere through a combined radiation and convection coef-
cient U
t
[4].
The characteristics of the collector under study, in particular its large dimensions
and the presence of a pebble layer in its absorber surface, demand an analysis of
distributed parameters that considers the dynamic eects as a signicant aspect of
its thermal behavior. This approach diers notably from the lumped parameters
and steady state analysis that Due and Beckman [4] present for air heaters.
The mathematical model that describes the dynamic response of this collector is
based on the next simplifying hypotheses:
. The air ow throughout the tunnel is incompressible.
. Temperature and velocity proles in any collector cross section are uniform.
. The thermal inertia of the uid and cover are negligible, but not that of the
absorber surface.
. The eects of longitudinal conduction in the absorber surface, in the uid and in
the cover are negligible.
. The physical properties of the uid and pebbles are independent of temperature.
Fig. 3. Schematic longitudinal section of the collector showing heat transfer process.
1373 A. Flores-Irigollen et al. / Renewable Energy 29 (2004) 13671382
. The thermal losses from the absorber surface toward the ground occur trough a
conductance U
b
, and from cover to ambient air trough a combined radiation
and convection coecient U
t
.
In these conditions, a thermal balance on the uid applied to a control volume
A
t
dx yields:
_ mmc
f
@T
f
@x
h
2
wT
p
T
f
h
1
L
a
T
f
T
c
1
For the pebble bed in the absorber surface one has:
1 eqc
p
e
@T
p
@t
S h
2
T
p
T
f
h
rpc
T
p
T
c
U
b
T
p
T
t
2
and nally for the polyethylene cover, the energy balance equation is written:
h
rpc
T
p
T
c
h
1
T
f
T
c
U
t
T
c
T
1
3
The model is complete if the following boundary and initial conditions are
invoked:
I:C:1 T
f
x; 0 T
0
8x 2 0; L 4
I:C:2 T
p
x; 0 T
0
8x 2 0; L 5
B:C: T
f
0; t f t: 6
The boundary condition stated in Eq. (6) species the air temperature at the col-
lector entrance as a time-dependent function.
For solar systems, Coutier and Farber [10] recommend modeling the ambient
temperature by means of a simple sinusoidal function. The computation program
implemented to solve Eqs. (1) and (3) allows the air temperature measured at the
collector entrance to be read directly from a le, or for it to be estimated by means
of an analytic expression.
In the preceding equations, the loss coecient U
t
that represents the sum of a
radiation coecient, h
rca
, and a convective coecient of losses due to the wind, h
w
,
as well as the radiation coecient between the pebbles and the cover, h
rpc
, were
estimated by means of the equations reported by Due and Beckman [4]:
h
rca

re
c
T
c
T
s
T
2
c
T
2
s
_ _
T
c
T
s

T
c
T
1

7
h
w
2:8 3:0V
w
8
h
rpc

re
p
e
c
T
p
T
c
_ _
T
2
p
T
2
c
_ _
1 r
p
r
c
9
Eq. (9) takes into account that the plastic cover is not opaque to long-wave-
length radiation.
A. Flores-Irigollen et al. / Renewable Energy 29 (2004) 13671382 1374
For the convective heat transfer coecient from the circulating air to the cover,
the correlation of Niles et al. [11] was used:
Nu 0:033Re
0:8
Pr
1=3
10
The experiments from which the above correlation was derived range in Rey-
nolds number from 10
4
to 10
5
approximately. The maximum Reynolds number in
the present study (147,000) exceeds the upper limit of that range; however, in a
similar correlation reported by Bejan [12] for forced turbulent convection in pipes
the applicability range is 2 10
4
< Re < 10
6
, which suggests that the range for the
Eq. (10) could be larger. It is also important to consider that for fully developed
turbulent ow heat transfer correlations derived for ducts of a particular cross sec-
tion (e.g. round), can apply to other types of cross-sections as long as the Reynolds
number is based on the hydraulic diameter [12]. Therefore, on the basis of the lat-
ter argument, Eq. (10), which applies to a parallel-plate cross-section, was used for
the present study.
Finally, to estimate the convection heat transfer coecient h
2
, the value that
produces the previous correlation was increased in 25%. This factor, considered in
the model as an adjustment parameter, was found appropriate to take into account
the turbulence generated by the irregularities of the absorber surface.
4. Proposed solution method
Obtaining an analytic solution to the outlined set of dierential equations is a
task that is practically impossible to carry out. The presence of a temperature
dependent radiative heat transfer coecient (Eqs. (2) and (3)), confers on the prob-
lem a strongly non-linear character.
In solar applications, Due and Beckman [4] recommend the use of numerical
techniques to facilitate dealing with variable temperature at the collector entrance
and heat losses toward an ambient of also variable temperature.
The numerical method proposed here starts with a simplication of the dieren-
tial equations by means of a procedure of partial non-dimensionalization, and it
diers from other methods in the derivation of the discretization equations.
The dimensionless variables are dened by:
X
x
L
and h
_ mmc
f
t
1 eqc
p
A
c
e
: 11
If the derivatives in Eqs. (1) and (2) are expressed with respect to the new vari-
ables, the following is obtained:
@T
f
@X
NUT
1
T
p
T
f
NUT
2
T
f
T
c
12
@T
p
@h
K
1
S NUT
1
T
p
T
f
K
2
T
p
T
c
K
3
T
p
T
t
13
1375 A. Flores-Irigollen et al. / Renewable Energy 29 (2004) 13671382
where
K
1

A
c
_ mmc
f
; NUT
1
h
2
K
1
; K
2
h
rpc
K
1
14
NUT
2

h
1
L
a
L
_ mmc
f
; K
3
U
b
K
1
: 15
Notice that denitions of the parameters NUT
1
and NUT
2
are very similar to
the concept of number of transfer units (NTU) that is widely used for heat exchan-
ger analysis [12].
Eqs. (12) and (13) can be reduced to the lineal canonical forms of rst order.
Thus:
@T
f
@X
p
2
T
f
q
2
16
@T
p
@h
p
1
T
p
q
1
17
where
p
1
NUT
1
K
2
K
3
18
q
1
K
1
S NUT
1
T
f
K
2
T
c
K
3
T
t
19
p
2
NUT
1
NUT
2
20
q
2
NUT
1
T
p
NUT
2
T
c
: 21
The simplicity of these canonical forms allows formulation of explicit discretiza-
tion equations for the temperatures of the dierent collector components, by ana-
lytical solution of Eqs. (16) and (17) in small spatial and temporal domains.
The discretization scheme is based on Fig. 4, which shows that the cover and
pebble temperatures inside any segment are considered uniform.
In this way, if Eq. (17) is solved for the ith segment in the dimensionless tem-
poral interval Dh, assuming that the uid and cover temperatures are constant,
then the following discretization equation for the pebbles is obtained:
T

p;i

q
1
p
1
T
p;i

q
1
p
1
_ _
Expp
1
Dh 22
An identical equation for the uid temperature is reached if Eq. (16) is solved ana-
lytically over the Dx interval, assuming the cover and absorber temperatures are
A. Flores-Irigollen et al. / Renewable Energy 29 (2004) 13671382 1376
constant. Thus:
T

f ;i1

q
2
p
2
T
f ;i

q
2
p
2
_ _
Expp
2
DX 23
The outlet uid temperature of the ith segment becomes the inlet temperature for
the i 1th segment. This explicit equation allows calculation of the outlet uid
temperature in each segment. A complete algorithm that includes the use of
Eqs. (3), (22) and (23) was implemented in a computer program.
5. Comparison with experiments
To validate the mathematical model, the implemented program that solves the
governing equations was run under realistic initial and boundary conditions. The
predictions of the outlet uid temperatures were compared with the measured tem-
peratures.
For the numerical simulations in the present model, the physical properties of
the uid and pebbles were evaluated at the average temperature of the collector.
The delity with which the model reproduces the experimental temperatures was
evaluated by obtaining the average absolute deviation, dened by:
d
1
Dt
_
Dt
0
T
calc
T
exp

dt 24
where the absolute dierence between calculated and experimental temperatures is
averaged over the duration of the experiment [13].
Fig. 4. Discretization of the solution domain.
1377 A. Flores-Irigollen et al. / Renewable Energy 29 (2004) 13671382
The accuracy of this model was also judged with a statistical criterion that con-
siders the instantaneous relative dierences of temperatures, that is:
d
r

1
Dt
_
Dt
0
T
calc
T
exp
T
exp
_ _
2
dt

: 25
The results of the numerical calculation are based on the convective heat transfer
coecient, h
2
, regarded as an adjustable parameter to t the data. This is the para-
meter of major uncertainty. It is nonetheless worth mentioning that the multiplier
constant of Eq. (10) was modied only once to calculate the tting value of h
2
for
an experimental data set, and kept without change for the simulation of the other
case.
Some experimental tests were carried out in the climatic conditions of La Paz
(24.15
v
north latitude and 110.36
v
west longitude), Mexico, in September 2001.
Because the data demonstrated repeatability, only results from the rst two tests
are presented here.
All the tests began approximately at the same time, at 7:30 a.m. ZT, and these
had a duration of 24 h. Since the tests were carried out during the same month, the
solar day length did not vary signicantly, as can be seen in the radiation curves
(dashed line) shown in Figs. 5 and 7. The ow regime during the tests was highly
turbulent (Re > 10; 000), indicated in Table 1, which additionally presents the aver-
age ow velocity, mass ow rate and the model deviations.
Tests 1 and 2 were carried out on 22 and 25 September 2001, respectively.
Fig. 5. Comparison of the experimental and theoretical outlet uid temperatures for the rst test.
A. Flores-Irigollen et al. / Renewable Energy 29 (2004) 13671382 1378
The results of tests 1 and 2 are plotted in Figs. 5 and 7. These graphs present the
evolution of the experimental inlet and outlet uid temperatures. The simulations
results are shown with a continuous line. These reproduce the experimental ther-
mal behavior appropriately as it is appreciated in the graphs. This agreement is
Fig. 6. Correlation between experimental and calculated outlet uid temperature (test 1).
Fig. 7. Comparison of the experimental and theoretical outlet uid temperatures for the second test.
1379 A. Flores-Irigollen et al. / Renewable Energy 29 (2004) 13671382
conrmed with the estimation of the temporary average of the temperatures absol-
ute dierences (OFT
calc
OFT
exp
) and also by Eq. (25) (average relative devi-
ation). Thus for our model the estimated deviation was barely 0.7
v
C, which
corresponds to a relative deviation of 2.5% for the rst test, and 0.9
v
C (2.8%) for
the second one.
Even though the mean absolute deviation d for the present model is 0.7
v
C,
errors up to 1.7
v
C were mainly observed 1.5 h after noon. One possible cause for
this deviation is the underestimation of the convective heat transfer coecient of
the pebbles to the uid. Further work on this topic will be reported at a future
time. Another possible cause for this deviation is an overestimation of the absorber
thermal capacitance that produces a slight phase shift of the theoretical tempera-
ture curve relative to the experimental one (see Fig. 5).
The dashed line corresponds to the solar radiation expressed in W/m
2
and
whose value is read on the secondary scale. The maximum of radiation occurs 6.5
h after the experiment was started, at approximately 14:00 h, and it reaches a value
of 860 W/m
2
.
Table 1
Model deviations
Test m (m/s) m (kg/s) Re d (
v
C) dr (%)
1 1.29 4.36 88,600 0.7 2.5
2 2.14 7.24 147,000 0.9 2.8
Fig. 8. Correlation between experimental and calculated outlet uid temperature (test 2).
A. Flores-Irigollen et al. / Renewable Energy 29 (2004) 13671382 1380
The eect of the pebble bed thermal inertia is another relevant aspect observed
in Figs. 5 and 7. This eect is evident after sunset, when the temperature dierence
between outlet and inlet is 3.5
v
for the rst test and 3.0
v
for the second one. Parti-
cularly for the rst test, this dierence falls gradually and it reaches 1
v
over the last
4 h. According to the theoretical results (continuous line), the model represents this
eect suciently well. However, in the last 5 h of the rst experiment, the outlet
uid temperature is slightly overestimated by the model.
Another way to demonstrate the model tness is by means of the correlation
graphs between measured and calculated temperatures. These correlations are plot-
ted in Figs. 6 and 8. The values of the slopes of the regression straight lines and the
correlation coecients are very close to unity, which conrms the model tness.
6. Conclusions
On the basis of the previous discussions, the following conclusions can be drawn:
A numerical model to simulate the dynamic behavior of an inatable-tunnel
solar air heater is formulated and validated. The model includes the thermal
capacitance of a pebble layer acting as absorber surface and is constituted by three
equations that describe the temperature distributions of the three system compo-
nents.
A new strategy to derive discretization equations is proposed. This is used to
resolve numerically the governing equations and it consists of analytically solving
the dimensionless equations in small spatial and temporal domains to produce
explicit discretization equations.
The average absolute deviation in all the tests was less than 1.0
v
C, which con-
rms that the model reproduces the thermal behavior of the collector acceptably
well. Relative deviations from experimental temperatures (less than 2.8%) conrm
the tness of the model.
Acknowledgements
The authors acknowledge the nancial support for the project from the Mexican
National Council for Science and Technology, (CONACYT, 31310-U) and also
express their gratitude to Miguel Angel Aldana, Mario Salas, Oscar Resendiz and
Juan Carlos Nava for their important contributions to this project.
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