6 Jun

In almost any nuclear, chemical, or mechanical system, heat must be transferred from one place to another or from one fluid to another.  Heat exchangers are used to  transfer  heat  from  one  fluid  to  another. A  basic  understanding  of  the mechanical components of a heat exchanger is important to understanding how they function and operate.


A heat exchanger is a component that allows the transfer of heat from one fluid (liquid or gas)

to another fluid.  Reasons for heat transfer include the following:

1.         To heat a cooler fluid by means of a hotter fluid

2.         To reduce the temperature of a hot fluid by means of a cooler fluid

3.         To boil a liquid by means of a hotter fluid

4.         To condense a gaseous fluid by means of a cooler fluid

5.         To boil a liquid while condensing a hotter gaseous fluid

Regardless of the function the heat exchanger fulfills, in order to transfer heat the fluids involved must be at different temperatures and they must come into thermal contact.  Heat can flow only from the hotter to the cooler fluid.

In a heat exchanger there is no direct contact between the two fluids.  The heat is transferred from the hot fluid to the metal isolating the two fluids and then to the cooler fluid.

T ypes of H eat E xchanger C onstruction

Although heat exchangers come in every shape and size imaginable, the construction of most heat exchangers fall into one of two categories: tube and shell, or plate.  As in all mechanical devices, each type has its advantages and disadvantages.

T ube and Shell

The most basic and the most common type of heat exchanger construction is the tube and shell, as shown in Figure 1.  This type of heat exchanger consists of a set of tubes in a container called a shell.  The fluid flowing inside the tubes is called the tube side fluid and the fluid flowing on the outside of the tubes is the shell side fluid.  At the ends of the tubes, the tube side fluid is separated from the shell side fluid by the tube sheet(s). The tubes are rolled and press-fitted or welded into the tube sheet to provide a leak tight seal. In systems where the two fluids are at vastly different pressures, the higher pressure fluid is typically directed through the tubes and the lower pressure fluid is circulated on the shell side.  This is due to economy, because the heat exchanger tubes can be made to withstand higher pressures than the shell of the heat exchanger for a much lower cost. The support plates shown on Figure 1 also act as baffles to direct the flow of fluid within the shell back and forth across the tubes.


A plate type heat exchanger, as illustrated in Figure 2, consists of plates instead of tubes to separate the hot and cold fluids.  The hot and cold fluids alternate between each of the plates.  Baffles direct the flow of fluid between plates.  Because each of the plates has a very large surface area, the plates provide each of the fluids with an extremely large heat transfer area.   Therefore a plate type heat exchanger, as compared to a similarly sized tube and shell heat exchanger, is capable of transferring much more heat.  This is due to the larger area the plates provide over tubes. Due to the high heat transfer efficiency of the plates, plate type heat exchangers are usually very small when compared to a tube and shell type heat exchanger with the same heat transfer capacity.  Plate type heat exchangers are not widely used because of the inability to reliably seal the large gaskets between each of the plates.  Because of this problem, plate type heat exchangers have only been used in small, low pressure applications  such as  on oil coolers  for engines.  However, new improvements  in gasket design and overall heat exchanger design have allowed some large scale applications of the plate type heat exchanger.  As older facilities are upgraded or newly designed facilities are built, large plate type heat exchangers are replacing tube and shell heat exchangers and becoming more common.

Types of Heat Exchangers

Because heat exchangers come in so many shapes, sizes, makes, and models, they are categorized according to common characteristics.  One common characteristic that can be used to categorize them is the direction of flow the two fluids have relative to each other.  The three categories are parallel flow, counter flow and cross flow.

Parallel flow, as illustrated in Figure 3, exists when both the tube side fluid and the shell side  fluid  flow  in  the  same  direction. In  this  case,  the  two  fluids  enter  the  heat exchanger from the same end with a large temperature difference.  As the fluids transfer heat, hotter to cooler, the temperatures of the two fluids approach each other.  Note that the hottest cold-fluid temperature is always less than the coldest hot-fluid temperature.

Counter  flow,  as illustrated in Figure 4, exists when the two fluids flow in opposite directions. Each of the fluids enters the heat exchanger at opposite ends.   Because the cooler fluid exits the counter flow heat exchanger at the end where the hot fluid enters the heat exchanger, the cooler fluid will approach the inlet temperature of the hot fluid. Counter flow heat exchangers are the most efficient of the three types.  In contrast to the parallel flow heat exchanger, the counter flow heat exchanger can have the hottest cold- fluid temperature greater than the coldest hot-fluid temperatue.

Cross flow, as illustrated in Figure 5, exists when one fluid flows perpendicular to the second fluid; that is, one fluid flows through tubes and the second fluid passes around the tubes at 90  angle.  Cross flow heat exchangers are usually found in applications where one  of  the  fluids  changes  state  (2-phase  flow). An  example  is  a  steam  system’s condenser, in which the steam exiting the turbine enters the condenser shell side, and the cool water flowing in the tubes absorbs the heat from the steam, condensing it into water. Large volumes of vapor may be condensed using this type of heat exchanger flow.

C om parison of the T ypes of H eat E xchangers

Each of the three types of heat exchangers has advantages and disadvantages.  But of the three, the counter flow heat exchanger design is the most efficient when comparing heat transfer rate per unit surface area.  The efficiency of a counter flow heat exchanger is due to the fact that the average  T  (difference in temperature) between the two fluids  over the length of  the heat exchanger is maximized, as shown in Figure 4.                                                                                     Therefore the log mean temperature for a counter flow heat exchanger is larger than the log mean temperature for a similar parallel or cross flow heat exchanger. (See the Thermodynamics, Heat Transfer, and Fluid Flow Fundamentals Handbook for a review of log mean temperature).  This can be seen by comparing the graphs in Figure 3, Figure 4, and Figure 5.  The following exercise demonstrates how the higher log mean temperature of the counter flow heat exchanger results in a larger heat transfer rate.  The log mean temperature for a heat exchanger is calculated using the following equation.

The results demonstrate that given the same operating conditions, operating the same heat exchanger  in a counter flow  manner will result  in a greater heat  transfer rate than operating in parallel flow.

In actuality, most large heat exchangers are not purely parallel flow, counter flow, or cross flow; they are usually a combination of the two or all three types of heat exchangers.  This is due to the fact that actual heat exchangers are more complex than the simple components shown in the idealized  figures  used  above  to  depict  each  type  of  heat  exchanger. The  reason  for  the combination of the various types is to maximize the efficiency of the heat exchanger within the restrictions placed on the design.  That is, size, cost, weight, required efficiency, type of fluids, operating pressures, and temperatures, all help determine the complexity of a specific heat exchanger.

One method that combines the characteristics of two or more heat exchangers and improves the performance of a heat exchanger is to have the two fluids pass each other several times within a single heat exchanger.   When a heat exchanger’s fluids pass each other more than once, a heat exchanger is called a multi-pass heat exchanger.  If the fluids pass each other only once, the heat exchanger is called a single-pass heat exchanger.   See Figure 6 for an example of both types. Commonly, the multi-pass heat exchanger reverses the flow in the tubes by use of one or more sets of “U” bends in the tubes.  The “U” bends allow the fluid to flow back and forth across the length of the heat exchanger.  A second method to achieve multiple passes is to insert baffles on the shell side of the heat exchanger.  These direct the shell side fluid back and forth across the tubes to achieve the multi-pass effect.

Heat exchangers are also classified by their function in a particular system.     One common classification is regenerative or nonregenerative.  A regenerative heat exchanger is one in which the same fluid is both the cooling fluid and the cooled fluid, as illustrated in Figure 7.  That is, the hot fluid leaving a system gives up its heat to “regenerate” or heat up the fluid returning to the system.  Regenerative heat exchangers are usually found in high temperature systems where a portion of the system’s fluid is removed from the main process, and then returned.  Because the fluid removed from the main process contains energy (heat), the heat from the fluid leaving the main system is used to reheat (regenerate) the returning fluid instead of being rejected to an external cooling medium to improve efficiency.                   It is important to remember that the term regenerative/nonregenerative only refers to “how” a heat exchanger functions in a system, and does not indicate any single type (tube and shell, plate, parallel flow, counter flow, etc.).

In a nonregenerative heat exchanger, as illustrated in Figure 7, the hot fluid is cooled by fluid from a separate system and the energy (heat) removed is not returned to the system.


The important information from this chapter is summarized below.

T ypes of H eat E xcha ng ers S um m a ry

There are two methods of constructing heat exchangers:

plate type and tube type.

Parallel flow – the hot fluid and the coolant flow in the same direction.

Counter flow – The hot fluid and the coolant flow in opposite directions.

Cross flow – the hot fluid and the coolant flow at 90 angles (perpendicular) to each other.

The four heat exchanger parts identified were:


Tube Sheet



Single-pass heat exchangers have fluids that pass each other only once.

Multi-pass heat exchangers have fluids that pass each other more than once through the use of U tubes and baffles.

Regenerative heat exchangers use the same fluid for heating and cooling.

Non-regenerative heat exchangers use separate fluids for heating and cooling.

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