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BUILD SIMUL (2018) 11: 339–346

Numerical and experimental study of conjugate heat transfer in a

horizontal air cavity

Research Article
Eva Troppová (), Jan Tippner, Matěj Švehlík

Department of Wood Science, Faculty of Forestry and Wood Technology, Mendel University in Brno, Brno 61300, Czech Republic

Abstract Keywords
The demand for general reduction of the energy consumption in civil engineering leads to more horizontal air cavity,
frequent use of insulating materials with air gaps or cavities. Heat transfer through a constructional conjugate heat transfer,
part can be decreased by adding an air gap and low emissivity reflective foils to the structure. In Rayleigh–Bénard convection,
the first part of this paper, the impacts of cavity thickness and inner surface emissivity on combined numerical models,
conduction, convection and radiation heat transfer was experimentally explored in the case of insulation fibreboard,
constructional part with a horizontal cavity subjected to constant downward heat flux. The heat reflective foil

flow meter Netzsch HFM 436 Lambda was used for steady-state measurements. Results suggest
that the studied parameters seriously affect the combined heat transfer in the composed
Article History
Received: 11 February 2017
structure. In the second part the paper reports the numerical study of two-dimensional conjugate
Revised: 14 July 2017
heat transfer in closed horizontal cavity having air as the intervening medium. Numerical models
Accepted: 19 July 2017
validated by related experimental results were performed to further investigate the effect of
radiation heat transfer. It was found that in general, the total heat flux through the composed
© Tsinghua University Press and
structure decreases with increasing air cavity thickness, which is significant especially when low
Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany 2017
emissivity inner surfaces are taking into account. The direction of heat flow (downward or upward
heat flow) has a significant impact on the convection heat transfer. An important contribution
from the present work is the analysis of the optimal thickness of the cavity at different boundary
conditions. The optimal thickness of the enclosure with low emissivity surfaces is 16 mm when
subjected to upward heat flux.

1 Introduction The experimental and numerical methods exist to study

the thermal performance of constructional parts including
The demand for reduction of the energy consumption an air layer. Daryabeigi (2002) validated the finite volume

Indoor/Outdoor Airflow
in building industry leads to more frequent use of numerical models dealing with combined radiation/

and Air Quality

environmentally friendly building materials such as wood conduction heat transfer in high-temperature multilayer
or wood-based composites. There are various kinds of exterior insulations with the steady-state effective thermal conductivity
wall systems which can be well optimised by varying the measurements. The 22.2% mass per unit area savings were
insulation material (Kosny et al. 2014). However, there are proved when the multilayer insulation was used compared
also other possibilities to optimize the thermal performance to a fibrous insulation sample with the same thickness. The
of building. Probably the best insulating materials nowadays numerical model for determining an influence of the air gap
derive benefit from low thermal conductivity of air or thickness on the thermal resistance of a whole construction
low-conductive gasses. A vacuum insulation panel is an is included in the work of Mavromatidis et al. (2012). The
example of such a material (Baetens et al. 2010). However, thicker the air layer, the more the inner gas flux affects the
there is still the hazard of losing inner vacuum or gas (Xie overall thermal conductivity. Many authors dealt with the
et al. 2010). Simple adding of non-ventilated air gap into a optimal air gap thickness as with increasing dimensions the
structure composition is more frequently used solution. convection heat transfer occurs (Xie et al. 2014; Armando

340 Troppová et al./ Building Simulation / Vol. 11, No. 2

List of symbols

c1μ temperature when μ = μ0: 293.15 [K] v magnitude of the velocity vector [m·s−1]
c2μ Sutherland coefficient: 110.56 [K] vx,y,z components of the velocity vector in the x, y
c1 temperature when λ = λ0: 293.15 [K] and z directions, respectively [m·s−1]
c2 Sutherland coefficient: 194.44 [K] Δx thickness of the sample [m]
cp specific heat [J·kg−1·K−1] β thermal expansion coefficient [K−1]
g gravitational acceleration [m·s−2] λ thermal conductivity [W·m−1·K−1]
N calibration factor [W·m−2] λ0 initial thermal conductivity [W·m−1·K−1]
q heat flux [W·m−2] λeff effective thermal conductivity [W·m−1·K−1]
ΔT temperature difference [K] μ0 initial dynamic viscosity [kg·m−1·s−1]
T static temperature [K] ρ density [kg·m−3]
T0 operating temperature [K] ρ0 constant density of the flow [kg·m−3]

et al. 2010; Mahlia and Iqbal 2010; Sheikholeslami and Rokni air chamber. The effective thermal resistance depends then
2017; Abu-Nada et al. 2008; Ho et al. 2010). The dimension on the emissivity of the radiant barrier and the thickness of
of an air cavity (mainly its thickness) is also decisive for the air cavity (Escudero et al. 2013). The optimal configuration
domination of radiative part of the heat transfer. Another of multilayer insulations separated by air gaps was studied
way how to improve thermal properties of a construction by Mavromatidis et al. (2011). A radiation/conduction
without using additional insulation and therefore escalate heat transfer numerical model approved the impact of the
the thickness is to insert a reflective foil to the wall air gap thickness on the thermal resistance of multilayer
composition. Numerical heat transfer analysis of combined insulations in building applications. Overcoming critical
conduction and radiation in transparent insulation material thickness of the air gap (in this case 3 cm) causes the
is performed by Kessentini et al. (2014). The thermal reduction of the construction thermal resistance because of
resistivity of an enclosed air cavity with reflective surfaces the increase of air convective conductivity.
was investigated by Saber (2012) at different inclinations and The presented investigation deals with the combined
directions of a heat flow. Pelzers and Van Schijndel (2011) effect of natural convection and surface radiation in air
studied also an influence of reflective insulation material filled cavities surrounded by uniformly heated plates of
enclosed by air cavities on the overall thermal performance. wood-based fibreboards. Both experimental and numerical
They stated that the highest thermal resistance values are validation is performed. The average heat flux passing
obtained when reflective materials are applied in building through the construction with different air gap thicknesses
components in which upward heat flow occurs. Based on was measured using the heat-flow meter. The possibility of
the Stefan-Boltzmann law, the reflective foils have the most increasing the thermal resistance by using low emissivity
visible impact when imposed to higher temperatures. The aluminium foils was investigated. Numerical models describing
performance of multilayer heat-resistance materials with the heat propagation and air movement in the cavity were
air gaps was therefore studied to be used in many aircraft performed at different directions of a heat flow.
applications (Wu et al. 2015; Maiorova et al. 2016; Cheng
et al. 2010). 2 Material and methods
Multi-layer insulation material consisting of plywood,
aluminium reflective foil and air gaps was investigated by 2.1 Experimental measurement
Pásztory (2013). The heat transfer was theoretically determined
by finite element method and then compared with results Dry-processed insulation fibreboards provided by Agepan®
of steady state heat flow measurement. A guarded hot box company were cut to a size 600 mm × 600 mm. Hydrophobic,
was used by Mavromatidis et al. (2012) to determine the diffusion-open fibreboards with a thickness of 32 mm were
heat transfer through different layers of fibrous materials conditioned in a Sanyo MTH 2400 chamber at 20 °C and
and aluminium foils, placed between one or two air gaps. 65% relative humidity until weight constancy (weight
The impact of cavity thickness on a block of exterior wall’s changes < 0.1%). The structure with horizontal air gap was
thermal conductivity researched by Aviram et al. (2001) by created from fibreboards. A frame from the same material
the means of a guarded hot box. All experimental studies was placed between two fibreboards to create an air cavity,
respect the fact that the radiant thermal insulation is the see Fig. 1. The thickness of the frame determined the
most effective when installed as a boundary surface of an thickness of the horizontal air gap which varied from 5 mm
Troppová et al. / Building Simulation / Vol. 11, No. 2 341

Fig. 1 The composition of measured samples: (a) without aluminium foils (ε=0.9); (b) with aluminium foils on inner surfaces (ε=0.3)

to 20 mm at 5 mm increments. Additionally, inner surfaces were held. Finally, reflective foils with aluminium cover were
of fibreboards creating the air cavity were covered by placed on both inner sides of fibreboards to enclose the air
aluminium foils. cavity. Thermal measurements were then repeated for all
The effective thermal conductivity of the construction selected cavity dimensions (5, 10 15 and 20 mm).
was measured across the thickness using the heat flow meter The heat transfer through the composed samples consists
Netzsch® HFM 436 Lambda. Measured samples were placed of all heat transfer modes: heat conduction in the solid
between two platens with thermal sensors and pressed with materials, convection and radiation in the air cavity. The
certain pressure to ensure minimum thermal resistance. ratio of change in transferred heat via radiation depends on
Stationary measurements were held at mean temperature the temperature difference between surrounding plates and
of 20 °C. The temperature difference between the hot and the emissivity of surfaces. The presumption is therefore
cold plate was set to 10 °C. The hot plate is at the top during that the low emissivity surfaces decrease the total heat flow
all measurements, see Fig. 2. Samples were wrapped in thin through the structure based on decreased radiation heat
transparent foils (thickness 0.01 mm) to avoid moisture transfer. The optimal thicknesses of the air gap together
changes during the measuring process. Five different with the direction of the heat flow are the most influencing
measurements at each air gap thickness were held to study factors.
variation in data. Afterwards, the low-emissivity reflective
foils were placed at each inner side of fibreboards to enclose 2.2 Numerical analysis
the air cavity. Heat flow was detected as soon as thermal
equilibrium has been reached. Effective thermal conductivity Ansys Parametric Design Language (APDL) was used to
of the whole composed sample is then calculated based on develop finite element numerical models describing the heat
the following equation: transfer through the structure. Two-dimensional analyses
were performed using the Ansys FLOTRAN element
Δx Δx(qupper + qlower )
λeff = N = (1) Fluid 141 in quadrilateral form. Geometry consists of a
ΔT 2ΔT solid/non-fluid and a fluid part. The two non-fluid parts
Firstly, solely fiberboards were measured to compare represent fibreboards layers. The fluid part is defined as
thermal conductivity values with the normative ones. incompressible air layer with enabled buoyancy driven flow.
Afterwards, measurements with different air gap thicknesses Physical properties of both materials (see Table 1) were
assigned to the geometry. The fluid-structure interaction

Table 1 Physical properties of non-fluid and fluid materials used

in the model
Material property Solid (fibreboards) Fluid (air)
−1 −1
λ0 [W·m ·K ] 0.0530 0.0242*
ρ [kg·m−3] 195 1.125
c [J·kg−1·K−1] 2100 1006.43
μ0 [kg·m−1·s−1] — 1.7894e−5*
* Thermal conductivity and dynamic viscosity vary with temperature based on
Sutherland’s formulas (ANSYS 1998): see Eq. (2) and Eq. (3):
T 1.5 c + c2
λ = λ0( ) ⋅( 1 ) (2)
c1 T + c2

Fig. 2 Setup of the heat flow meter measurement (adopted from T 1.5 c μ + c2μ
μ = μ0( μ ) ⋅( 1 ) (3)
Troppová et al. (2015)) c1 T + c2μ
342 Troppová et al./ Building Simulation / Vol. 11, No. 2

was created by the connection of adjacent finite element are expressed in terms of partial differential equations which
meshes with different material properties. Dirichlet’s (first are discretized with a finite element based technique. The
type) boundary conditions were used. Different temperatures incompressible energy equation describes a thermal transport
were assigned to the top and the bottom line of the model for the static temperature:
which creates temperature difference 10 K. The fluid flow
in the air cavity is caused only by the temperature gradient ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶
( ρcT ) + ( ρv x cpT ) + ( ρv y cpT ) + ( ρv z c pT )
as the pressure value is uniform at the beginning of the ¶t ¶x ¶y ¶z
analysis. The boundary conditions applied to the model are ¶ ¶T ¶ ¶T ¶ ¶T
= (λ )+ (λ )+ (λ ) (5)
described in Fig. 3. ¶x ¶x ¶y ¶y ¶z ¶z
The governing equations solved by Ansys FLOTRAN
in fluid environment of the model are the Navier–Stokes The static temperature is calculated for each iteration
equations. Following assumptions in the solved simulation from the total temperature from the kinetic energy:
of closed air domain are valid: the flow is laminar, the fluid
is nonparticipating in radiation transfer, and the Boussinesq T = T0 - (6)
approximation is performed in the steady-state calculation. 2cp
This approach is valid as the temperature differences in the
The solution of air velocity and also the heat transfer in
domain are small. The conservation equations for viscous
the air layer is strongly dependent on the mesh distribution.
fluid flow and energy are solved in the fluid region, while
A fine mesh (a quadrilateral element) with 20 divisions along
only the energy equation (Fourier’s law) is solved in the
the cavity thickness was created. The stationary analyses with
solid/non-fluid region. For the fluid element, the velocities
high number of iterations (1000 iterations) were performed.
(in X and Y direction) are obtained from the conservation
The number of global iterations required to achieve a con-
of momentum principle, the pressure is obtained from the
verged solution vary depending on the size of the problem.
conservation of mass principle and the temperature is
The smaller the cavity and therefore the element size, the
obtained from the law of conservation of energy (Anderson
higher iteration number is needed.
1995). The Boussinesq model treats density as a constant
There were four different cases calculated for four various
value in all solved equations, except for the buoyancy term
thicknesses of the air cavity (5, 10, 15 and 20 mm). The cases
in the momentum equation:
differ in the emissivity value assigned to inner surfaces (0.3
( ρ - ρ0 ) g » -ρ0 β ( T - T0 ) g (4) or 0.9) and the direction of the heat flow (upwards and
downwards). The differences between boundary conditions
The fluid flow problem is defined by the laws of of all cases are described in detail in the Table 2. The
conservation of mass, momentum and energy. These laws experimental data were used for validation of Case 1

Fig. 3 Boundary conditions applied to the model

Table 2 Differences between computed cases

Air cavity thickness Emissivity coefficient of Temperature Temperature
Cases [mm] inner surfaces [—] Tup [°C] Tdown [°C] Direction of heat flow
Case 1 5, 10, 15, 20 0.9 25 15 Downwards
Case 2 5, 10, 15, 20 0.3 25 15 Downwards
Case 3 5, 10, 15, 20 0.9 15 25 Upwards
Case 4 5, 10, 15, 20 0.3 15 25 Upwards
Troppová et al. / Building Simulation / Vol. 11, No. 2 343

(without reflective foils) and Case 2 (with reflective foils).

3 Results

The average thermal conductivity of conditioned fibreboards

determined at mean moisture content 4.6% and 20 °C by
heat flow meter is 0.053 W·m−1·K−1, based on ISO 8301:199.
The measured thermal conductivity value was further used
in numerical simulations. Effective thermal conductivity
data of the measured composed samples with and without
reflective foils, at the mean temperature 20 °C, are shown
in Table 3. Accuracy of the heatflow measurement was ±3%.
Effective thermal conductivity increases with increasing
thickness of the air cavity, in the case without reflective
Fig. 4 Experimentally obtained thermal transmittance values for
foils. The emissivity coefficient was proved to be the most a structure with different air gap thicknesses at downward heat
influential factor contributing to the decrease of total heat flux
flow. The significance of radiation transfer increases with
increase in the air gap thickness. The effective thermal Cases 1 and 2 (see Table 2) were computed using Ansys
conductivity of the sample with reflective foils decreased FLOTRAN to reach the heat flux values caused by all heat
to 13.7% compared to the sample without reflective foils at transfer modes. The total heat flux values computed
20 mm thick air gap. There is almost no difference between numerically were compared with the experimental ones
both cases at 5 mm air gap. This is caused by low temperature and they were in a close agreement between each other, see
gradient within the small cavity, therefore low impact of Fig. 5. The numerical results differ from the experimental
radiation transfer. Therefore, the thicker is the air enclosure, values by less than <4% over the range 6 W·m−2 to 8 W·m−2.
the more efficient is the usage of low effective reflective foils. It was found that the radiative heat transfer is dominant at
Thermal transmittance, described as the rate of heat high emissivity coefficient of inner cavity surfaces (Fig. 5,
transfer through one square meter of a structure divided Case 1). Pelzers and Van Schijndel (2013) stated that the
by the temperature difference (in W·m−2·K−1), is common convective heat transfer is dominant when low emission
concept in building design. It is a benchmark for the com- coefficient materials are applied to structure, which confirm
parative efficiency of materials or whole building elements. the own data (Fig. 5, Case 2).
Therefore, thermal transmittances of structures with and As predicted, the direction of the heat flow is decisive
without low emissivity foils for different air gap thicknesses in laminar flow development. The characteristics of heat
were calculated based on the experimental data. As seen from transfer through a horizontal enclosure depend whether
Fig. 4, the thermal transmittance decreases with increasing the hotter plate is at the top (downward flow) or at the
air gap thickness. The low thermal conductivity of air bottom (upward flow). If the downward flow is applied, no
decreases the total heat transferred through the whole convection will develop in the enclosure since the lighter
structure. The high impact of emissivity of inner surfaces is fluid is still on the top of the heavier fluid (see Fig. 6, Cases 1
apparent. The thicker is air gap, the bigger are differences and 2). The heat flow in the enclosure is then caused purely
between transmittance values for cases with and without by conduction and radiation heat transfer. If the upward
reflective foils. flow is induced, the buoyancy driven flow will occur in the
enclosure. The heat transfer is still by pure conduction,
Table 3 Experimental effective thermal conductivity values for until the lighter hotter fluid rise to the colder top plate and
system with air gaps cools down. At certain Rayleigh number (Ra>1708), the
Effective thermal conductivity Thickness of the air gap [mm] buoyant force overcomes the fluid resistance and initiates
λ [W·m−1·K−1] 5 10 15 20 natural convection currents (Çengel and Ghajar 2011). The
convection current in the form of hexagonal Bénard cells is
0.0537 0.0557 0.0588 0.0617
Without reflective foils evident in Fig. 6, Case 4.
(0.24) (1.62) (1.92) (2.13)
The uneven temperature distribution within the air cavity
0.0531 0.0508 0.0517 0.0532
With reflective foils arises from the low emissivity coefficient of inner surfaces
(0.22) (1.08) (1.19) (0.35)
Note: The values in parenthesis describe the coefficient of variaton of
which leads to Rayleigh–Bénard convection at thinner
measurements enclosures. The velocity field distribution (0.007 m·s−1)
344 Troppová et al./ Building Simulation / Vol. 11, No. 2

Fig. 5 Comparison of experimentally and numerically calculated total heat flux values for Cases 1 and 2

Fig. 6 The average air velocity [m.s−1] within the enclosure at 20 mm thickness for all computed cases

originates in Case 3 (ε=0.9) at 28 mm thick enclosure, while are equal up to the thickness 18 mm. The total heat flux
the same velocity field originates in Case 4 (ε=0.3) at thickness decreases constantly with increasing enclosure thickness in
20 mm. Air velocities of cases 1 and 3 are equal at the 20 mm Case 2, as the convection heat transfer does not affect it.
thickness, as the Rayleigh number does not exceed critical
value to enable buoyant flow. 4 Conclusion
The laminar flow results solely from density gradients
brought about by temperature variations. Those natural The experimental and numerical study of conjugate heat
convection currents occur at the 18 mm thick air enclosure transfer in horizontal enclosure (560 mm × 560 mm and
(Case 4) bringing the increase in total heat flux value, see thickness 5–20 mm) at different heat flow directions was
Fig. 7. This statement was proved by the calculated air presented. Numerical models dealing with heat transfer in
velocity distribution in the enclosure (Fig. 6, Case 4). The composed samples subjected to downward heat flow were
differences between heat flux values in cases with low verified by experimental data. The heat flow meter method
emissivity surfaces (ε=0.3) at upward (Case 4) and downward was used to measure effective thermal conductivity of samples.
(Case 2) heat flow are shown in Fig. 7. Total heat flux values Based on the close agreement between data, the numerical
Troppová et al. / Building Simulation / Vol. 11, No. 2 345

Fig. 7 Comparison of heat flux values of Cases 2 and 4 in thickness range of the enclosure 1–3 mm based on the numerical evaluation

analyses of samples at upward heat flow direction were analysis can furthermore serve for prediction of heat flows
held and the total heat flux calculated. The obtained in enclosures with higher dimensions or other boundary
experimental and numerical results led to the following conditions.
 The effective thermal conductivity increases with increasing Acknowledgements
thickness of the enclosure. Radiation heat transfer con-
tributes to the decrease of total heat flow significantly. The The authors gratefully acknowledge the financial support of
thicker is the air gap, the more dominant is the decrease the International Grant Agency of the Mendel University
of heat flow caused by radiation. (project no. 19/2014).
 The thermal transmittance value decreases with increasing

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