George Erickson

The clever birth of the heat pipe

April 26, 2023

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Browned on the outside, cold in the middle; the holiday turkey still wasn’t done. The 1960s preconvection era oven Andy Erickson’s mom had grappled with for years had produced yet another undercooked bird. 

Eyes wide with excitement, Andy’s dad, George Erickson, ransacked his toolbox, producing a steel tube that he jammed into the turkey before shoving it back in the oven.

A well-roasted Butterball emerged minutes later, signaling a culinary triumph hinged on a homespun version of a fascinating new device George called a “heat pipe.”

Turkey physics: Here's how it worked

George’s heat pipe held liquid and a wicklike material running from top to bottom. As the liquid heated up, it vaporized, condensing at the other end of the pipe and releasing heat into the turkey’s core before traveling back via the wick to restart the journey.

This process brought a consistent amount of heat to the turkey’s core, cooking it evenly.

Dinner to deep space: A truly 'universal' technology

Today, the heat pipe is one of the Laboratory’s most widely used products, with copious applications large and small, on domestic, industrial and extraterrestrial scales. In fact, your laptop likely uses a heat pipe — it’s radiating heat from the microchips under your keyboard. 

More than 120,000 heat pipes are used along the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline to create additional ground cooling during winter. In this model, heat pipes facilitate a natural convection process in which heat is absorbed from soil under the pipeline and ejected into the atmosphere. This sustains permafrost around the pipeline’s support pylons and prevents it from sagging in warmer temperatures.

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Heat pipes at work on computer circuitry—just one of their many uses. More than 120,000 heat pipes are installed along the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline to create additional ground cooling during winter.

Heat pipes also work well in zero-gravity environments and have been used to manage temperatures inside spacecraft, where heat generated by electronics can build up and damage equipment.

In 1996, the space shuttle Endeavour carried three Laboratory heat pipes that operated at temperatures above 900°F. Over the past two decades, the Laboratory has also worked with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in developing heat pipes to generate electricity and propulsion in spacecraft designed to journey to the solar system’s outer limits.

Recently, the Laboratory pioneered a new Kilopower reactor, which leverages heat pipes to create a versatile power source in remote locations, like Mars. 

Early practical heat pipes used mostly low-temperature working fluids like water, but more recent practical applications, like Kilopower, use liquid metals such as sodium.

Science maverick's DIY — an innovation for the ages

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Ed Keddy (left) and George Erickson (right) observe a heat pipe in the lab in the late 1960s.

While Lab physicists George Grover and Ted Cotter are largely credited with propelling the heat pipe into the science mainstream, Andy points out that it was his father’s hands-on production of the first prototype that formed the material basis for the device’s eventual widespread use.

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“Grover had the notion, but Dad put the concept into practice,” he said. “I have proof he built the first demonstrated heat pipes because the original blank is hanging on my wall.”

Andy said he often marvels at his father’s industriousness, noting that unlike many of his Laboratory peers, George did not have a college degree.

“Dad didn’t agree with math, and math didn’t agree with Dad,” he added. “He was not a good student in the traditional sense.”

The lack of formal education certainly never stifled George’s creative ingenuity. 

Bob Reid, of Applied Engineering Technology (AET-1) at the time of this interview, said the elder Erickson was a science “maverick.”

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Physicist George Grover’s 1963 notebook, outlining the first heat pipe experiment with a hand-sketched diagram.

The story goes that George whipped up the first heat pipe virtually on the spot after Cotter casually mentioned the concept in passing one afternoon. Grover’s personal notebook, which Bob has on file, outlines the first experiment with a diagram drawn by hand.

“George built the first heat pipe in less than a day and tested it using heat lamps,” Bob said. “He went out, blew the glass, sealed it and put it all together, and Grover wasn’t even aware he was working on it. My understanding is that Cotter got nervous because he wasn’t supposed to share the information, but Grover was pleased the idea worked.”

Lighting the fuse for knowledge

Growing up around Chicago, George was what Andy calls a “basement bomber,” obsessing over homemade explosives and ham radios. He spent hours at home, mixing chemicals, building electronic contraptions and testing his creations in empty lots or at Lake Michigan. Those early infatuations eventually led George to a job at Argonne National Laboratory and finally Los Alamos in 1957.

George was quick to instill those childhood passions in his own offspring.

“When I was 6 years old my dad bought me Tenney L. Davis’s book, ‘The Chemistry of Powder and Explosives,’” Andy said. “He told me, ‘We will build anything you want as long as you demonstrate proficiency first. Then you can blow your own stuff up.’ He encouraged that inquisitiveness but wanted things done safely.”

Not a typical gift for a 6-year-old, Andy admits. But in those days in the Los Alamos science community, it was “just normal.”

“He was just Dad, and he encouraged thought,” Andy said. “He always had 25 ideas and projects going simultaneously.”

George’s projects sometimes bore scientific fruit, like the time Andy saw him offhandedly build the Laboratory’s first carbon dioxide laser. A short time later, he used the same concept to rig up a 40-watt carbon dioxide laser with household parts for a neighbor’s kid’s science fair carbon dioxide project.

“They just set it up on the kitchen table,” Andy said. 

“When Dad turned it on, a fire brick fell over and the laser shot right through the wall, narrowly missing the phone line. Mom was always proud of that hole.”

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George Erickson and his first heat pipe. His son Andy has it mounted to a plaque that he proudly hangs on his wall.

The curious inventor

At the Laboratory, George was an out-of-the-box thinker with an innate ability to create from the metaphysical.

“He’s what we used to call an ‘inventor’ at the Lab,” Bob Reid said, referring to George’s remarkable dexterity. “George is the most effective inventor I’ve ever known.”

According to Bob, it was George’s radical curiosity — the need to explore ideas at an intrepid pace — that made him a great innovator.

“He’s one of a kind — that’s all there is to it,” Bob said. “I’m trying to grow my own crop of Georges to think his way and be curiosity-driven. We need more people in the Laboratory like George.” 

George retired from the Laboratory in 1992. For many years after, he reveled in lending his expertise to the Los Alamos community, running the local Kiwanis Club’s July Fourth fireworks show every summer.

Editor’s note: George Erickson was 89 years old when this story was first published. He died on March 5, 2019. G. Andrew (Andy) Erickson was the director of Global Security Programs when this story was first published; he retired in 2022.