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Heat Exchangers


A heat exchanger is a piece of equipment built for efficient heat transfer from one medium to another. The media may be separated by a solid wall, so that they never mix, or they may be in direct contact. They are widely used in space heating, refrigeration, air conditioning, power plants, chemical plants, petrochemical plants, petroleum refineries, natural gas processing, and sewage treatment. The classic example of a heat exchanger is found in an internal combustion engine in which a circulating fluid known as engine coolant flows through radiator coils and air flows past the coils, which cools the coolant and heats the incoming air.



Types of heat exchangers

Shell and tube heat exchanger

Heat exchanger

A Shell and Tube heat exchanger

Main article: Shell and tube heat exchanger
Shell and tube heat exchangers consist of a series of tubes. One set of these tubes contains the fluid that must be either heated or cooled. The second fluid runs over the tubes that are being heated or cooled so that it can either provide the heat or absorb the heat required. A set of tubes is called the tube bundle and can be made up of several types of tubes: plain, longitudinally finned, etc. Shell and tube heat exchangers are typically used for high-pressure applications (with pressures greater than 30 bar and temperatures greater than 260 °C). This is because the shell and tube heat exchangers are robust due to their shape.
There are several thermal design features that are to be taken into account when designing the tubes in the shell and tube heat exchangers. These include:

Plate and Frame heat exchanger

Conceptual diagram of a plate and frame heat exchanger.

Single plate heat exchanger

A single plate heat exchanger


Plate heat exchanger
Main article: Plate heat exchanger
Another type of heat exchanger is the plate heat exchanger. One is composed of multiple, thin, slightly separated plates that have very large surface areas and fluid flow passages for heat transfer. This stacked-plate arrangement can be more effective, in a given space, than the shell and tube heat exchanger. Advances in gasket and brazing technology have made the plate-type heat exchanger increasingly practical. In HVAC applications, large heat exchangers of this type are called plate-and-frame; when used in open loops, these heat exchangers are normally of the gasket type to allow periodic disassembly, cleaning, and inspection. There are many types of permanently bonded plate heat exchangers, such as dip-brazed and vacuum-brazed plate varieties, and they are often specified for closed-loop applications such as refrigeration. Plate heat exchangers also differ in the types of plates that are used, and in the configurations of those plates. Some plates may be stamped with "chevron" or other patterns, where others may have machined fins and/or grooves.

Plate & shell heat exchanger
A third type of heat exchanger is plate & shell heat exchanger which combines plate heat exchanger and shell & tube heat exchanger technologies. In the heart of the heat exchanger there are a fully welded circular plate pack which is made by pressing and cutting round plates and welding them together. Nozzles are added which carry flow in and out of the platepack (the 'Plate side' flowpath).The fully welded platepack is assembled into an outer shell which creates a second flowpath ( the 'Shell side'). Plate and shell technology offers high heat transfer, high pressure, high operating temperature, compact size, low fouling and close approach temperature. In particular, it does completely without gaskets, which provides security against leakage at high pressures and temperatures.

Adiabatic wheel heat exchanger
A fourth type of heat exchanger uses an intermediate fluid or solid store to hold heat, which is then moved to the other side of the heat exchanger to be released. Two examples of this are adiabatic wheels, which consist of a large wheel with fine threads rotating through the hot and cold fluids, and fluid heat exchangers.

Plate fin heat exchanger
Main article: Plate fin heat exchanger
This type of heat exchanger uses "sandwiched" passages containing fins to increase the effectivity of the unit. The designs include crossflow and counterflow coupled with various fin configurations such as straight fins, offset fins and wavy fins.
Plate and fin heat exchangers are usually made of aluminium alloys which provide higher heat transfer efficiency. The material enables the system to operate at a lower temperature and reduce the weight of the equipment. Plate and fin heat exchangers are mostly used for low temperature services such as natural gas, helium and oxygen liquefaction plants, air separation plants and transport industries such as motor and aircraft engines.
Advantages of plate and fin heat exchangers:

Disadvantages of plate and fin heat exchangers:

Pillow plate heat exchanger
A pillow plate exchanger is commonly used in the dairy industry for cooling milk in large direct-expansion stainless steel bulk tanks. The pillow plate allows for cooling across nearly the entire surface area of the tank, without gaps that would occur between pipes welded to the exterior of the tank.
The pillow plate is constructed using a thin sheet of metal spot-welded to the surface of another thicker sheet of metal. The thin plate is welded in a regular pattern of dots or with a serpentine pattern of weld lines. After welding the enclosed space is pressurized with sufficient force to cause the thin metal to bulge out around the welds, providing a space for heat exchanger liquids to flow, and creating a characteristic appearance of a swelled pillow formed out of metal.

Fluid heat exchangers
This is a heat exchanger with a gas passing upwards through a shower of fluid (often water), and the fluid is then taken elsewhere before being cooled. This is commonly used for cooling gases whilst also removing certain impurities, thus solving two problems at once. It is widely used in espresso machines as an energy-saving method of cooling super-heated water to be used in the extraction of espresso.

Waste heat recovery units
A Waste Heat Recovery Unit (WHRU) is a heat exchanger that recovers heat from a hot gas stream while transferring it to a working medium, typically water or oils. The hot gas stream can be the exhaust gas from a gas turbine or a diesel engine or a waste gas from industry or refinery.

Dynamic scraped surface heat exchanger
Another type of heat exchanger is called "(dynamic) scraped surface heat exchanger". This is mainly used for heating or cooling with high-viscosity products, crystallization processes, evaporation and high-fouling applications. Long running times are achieved due to the continuous scraping of the surface, thus avoiding fouling and achieving a sustainable heat transfer rate during the process.

Phase-change heat exchangers

Kettle reboiler

Typical kettle reboiler used for industrial distillation towers

Water cooled surface condenser

Typical water-cooled surface condenser

In addition to heating up or cooling down fluids in just a single phase, heat exchangers can be used either to heat a liquid to evaporate (or boil) it or used as condensers to cool a vapor and condense it to a liquid. In chemical plants and refineries, reboilers used to heat incoming feed for distillation towers are often heat exchangers.
Distillation set-ups typically use condensers to condense distillate vapors back into liquid.
Power plants which have steam-driven turbines commonly use heat exchangers to boil water into steam. Heat exchangers or similar units for producing steam from water are often called boilers or steam generators.
In the nuclear power plants called pressurized water reactors, special large heat exchangers which pass heat from the primary (reactor plant) system to the secondary (steam plant) system, producing steam from water in the process, are called steam generators. All fossil-fueled and nuclear power plants using steam-driven turbines have surface condensers to convert the exhaust steam from the turbines into condensate (water) for re-use.
To conserve energy and cooling capacity in chemical and other plants, regenerative heat exchangers can be used to transfer heat from one stream that needs to be cooled to another stream that needs to be heated, such as distillate cooling and reboiler feed pre-heating.
This term can also refer to heat exchangers that contain a material within their structure that has a change of phase. This is usually a solid to liquid phase due to the small volume difference between these states. This change of phase effectively acts as a buffer because it occurs at a constant temperature but still allows for the heat exchanger to accept additional heat. One example where this has been investigated is for use in high power aircraft electronics.

Direct contact heat exchangers
Direct contact heat exchangers involve heat transfer between hot and cold streams of two phases in the absence of a separating wall. Thus such heat exchangers can be classified as:

Most direct contact heat exchangers fall under the Gas- Liquid category, where heat is transferred between a gas and liquid in the form of drops, films or sprays.
Such types of heat exchangers are used predominantly in air conditioning, humidification, hot water heating,water cooling and condensing plants.


Continuous phase

Driving force

Change of phase


Gas – Liquid




Spray columns, packed columns





Cooling towers, falling droplet evaporators





Spray coolers/quenchers



Liquid flow


Spray condensers/evaporation, jet condensers





Bubble columns, perforated tray columns





Bubble column condensers





Gas spargers



Gas flow


Direct contact evaporators, submerged combustion



Heat Exchanger

A heat exchanger in a steam power station contaminated with macrofouling.

Fouling occurs when impurities deposit on the heat exchange surface. Deposition of these impurities can be caused by:

The rate of heat exchanger fouling is determined by the rate of particle deposition less re-entrainment/suppression. This model was originally proposed in 1959 by Kern and Seaton.

Crude Oil Exchanger Fouling. In commercial crude oil refining, crude oil is heated from 21 °C to 343 °C prior to entering the distillation column. A series of shell and tube heat exchangers is typically used to exchange heat between the crude oil and other oil streams, in order to get the crude to 260 °C prior to heating in a furnace. Fouling occurs on the crude side of these exchangers due to asphaltene insolubility. The nature of asphaltene solubility in crude oil was successfully modeled by Wiehe and Kennedy. The precipitation of insoluble asphaltenes in crude preheat trains has been successfully modeled as a first order reaction by Ebert and Panchal who expanded on the work of Kern and Seaton.

Cooling Water Fouling. Cooling water systems are susceptible to fouling. Cooling water typically has a high total dissolved solids content and suspended colloidal solids. Localized precipitation of dissolved solids occurs at the heat exchange surface due to wall temperatures higher than bulk fluid temperature. Low fluid velocities (less than 3 ft/s) allow suspended solids to settle on the heat exchange surface. Cooling water is typically on the tube side of a shell and tube exchanger because it's easy to clean. To prevent fouling, designers typically ensure that cooling water velocity is greater than 0.9 m/s and bulk fluid temperature is maintained less than 60 °C. Other approaches to control fouling control combine the “blind” application of biocides and anti-scale chemicals with periodic lab testing.

Plate heat exchangers need to be disassembled and cleaned periodically. Tubular heat exchangers can be cleaned by such methods as acid cleaning, sandblasting, high-pressure water jet, bullet cleaning, or drill rods.
In large-scale cooling water systems for heat exchangers, water treatment such as purification, addition of chemicals, and testing, is used to minimize fouling of the heat exchange equipment. Other water treatment is also used in steam systems for power plants, etc. to minimize fouling and corrosion of the heat exchange and other equipment.
A variety of companies have started using water borne oscillations technology to prevent biofouling. Without the use of chemicals, this type of technology has helped in providing a low-pressure drop in heat exchangers.

In industry
Heat exchangers are widely used in industry both for cooling and heating large scale industrial processes. The type and size of heat exchanger used can be tailored to suit a process depending on the type of fluid, its phase, temperature, density, viscosity, pressures, chemical composition and various other thermodynamic properties.
In many industrial processes there is waste of energy or a heat stream that is being exhausted, heat exchangers can be used to recover this heat and put it to use by heating a different stream in the process. This practice saves a lot of money in industry as the heat supplied to other streams from the heat exchangers would otherwise come from an external source which is more expensive and more harmful to the environment.
Heat exchangers are used in many industries, some of which include:

In the waste water treatment industry, heat exchangers play a vital role in maintaining optimal temperatures within anaerobic digesters so as to promote the growth of microbes which remove pollutants from the waste water. The common types of heat exchangers used in this application are the double pipe heat exchanger as well as the plate and frame heat exchanger.