Choosing the Right Material for Heat Exchangers

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Choosing the Right Material for Heat Exchangers

It’s no secret that machinery emits heat, and without an effective way to remove it, bearings seize and fluids boil. On the flip side, properly regulated machinery uses heat to warm our homes and workspaces, light our light bulbs, and, ironically, keep our refrigerators cold. Each of these functions and countless others is made possible through heat exchangers—a device introduced in the late 1800s and improved upon ever since.

How Heat Exchangers Work

As the name suggests, they work by conducting heat between one liquid and another, with the term “liquid” defined as a fluid or gas. These are usually kept separate by a thin wall of metal—a tube or plate, for instance—that boasts high thermal conductivity; as the liquids move past one another on each side of the wall, their temperature differential equalizes, thus “exchanging” heat.

Some heat exchangers are passive, relying on convection to cool the component. For example, a heat sink is nothing more than a series of metal ribs, as in that odd-looking contraption sitting atop your desktop computer’s CPU. Aim a fan at it, however, and it is now active. This is the case with most heat exchangers, which use a refrigerant (or heat source) to create a temperature differential.

Common Types of Heat Exchanger

One of the most common heat exchangers is the radiator that keeps your car’s engine from overheating. The aerospace industry uses heat exchangers to keep aircraft cabins comfortable and fuel flowing freely. Chemical producers depend on them to condense corrosive gases, while food producers would be unable to deliver safe food without heat exchangers. The list goes on, with these uber-critical devices touching practically every aspect of our daily lives. 

Several styles of heat exchanger are available. Double pipe, shell and tube, scraped surface, helical or spiral—these are a few of the most common designs for heat exchangers, with more invented all the time. This last point is especially true given the advent of metal 3D printers like those we use, which make it possible to create complex, conformal cooling channels and greatly increase the number of walls and chambers—thereby improving a heat exchanger’s efficiency—without running the risk that the fluids will mingle due to leaky brazes or other types of joint failure.

The graphene composite in this part passively draws heat away from anything it touches. The fin/rib shape allows for greater airflow or contact with liquids, increasing the cooling effect.

How is Thermal Conductivity of Material Measured?

Whatever the design, it’s important to choose the right metal. It must be thermally conductive, obviously, but depending on the application, the metal you have to consider resistance to chemical corrosion, repeated heating and cooling, temperature extremes. Abusive environments such as oil and gas exploration, mining, and nuclear energy need a bit of extra thought to find a materials match.

For less demanding applications, copper is usually the favourite metal for heat exchangers. It has a thermal conductivity of 413 watts per metre Kelvin (W/mK). Aluminium follows at 237 W/mK, brass cartridges (C26000) reach 111 W/mK, titanium is 24 W/mK, and stainless steels and nickel-based alloys (such as Inconel and Hastelloy) offer lower values.

Comparing Metals for Heat Exchanger Applications

Copper and aluminium would seem, then, to be the only viable choices for heat exchanger materials. This is not the case. Firstly, the behaviour of metals varies with temperature, with thermal conductivity increasing with temperature (and vice versa). Designers should ensure that they understand the operating conditions of the heat exchanger when choosing which metal to use.

More important for industrial applications is the strength and corrosion resistance of the metal. Non-ferrous copper and aluminium are too weak for many of the harsh industrial environments listed earlier, making stainless steel and high-temperature alloys the preferred choice. Titanium, although not very thermally conductive, is the preferred choice for many aerospace applications due to its superior strength and light weight, although it costs more than competing metals.

Please feel free to contact our application engineers at : for advice on material selection, design guidelines for 3D printed heat exchanger components, and secondary processing and post-processing considerations. We’ll be talking to you soon and bringing you what you want.