What is a Heat Exchanger?

Shannon Kietzman

A heat exchanger is a specialized device that assists in the transfer of heat from one fluid to the other. In some cases, a solid wall may separate the fluids and prevent them from mixing. In other designs, the fluids may be in direct contact with each other. In the most efficient heat exchangers, the surface area of the wall between the fluids is maximized while simultaneously minimizing the fluid flow resistance. Fins or corrugations are sometimes used with the wall in order to increase the surface area and to induce turbulence.

Some heat exchangers use tubular baffles to radiate heat.
Some heat exchangers use tubular baffles to radiate heat.

Common appliances containing a heat exchanger include air conditioners, refrigerators, and space heaters. These devices are also used in chemical processing and power production. Perhaps the most commonly known heat exchanger is a car radiator, which cools the hot radiator fluid by taking advantage of airflow over the surface of the radiator.

Traditional hot water radiators are a type of heat exchanger.
Traditional hot water radiators are a type of heat exchanger.

There are three primary flow arrangements with heat exchangers: counter-flow, parallel-flow, and cross-flow. In the counter-flow exchanger, the fluids enter the exchanger from opposite sides. This is the most efficient design because it transfers the greatest amount of heat. In the parallel-flow version, the fluids come in from the same end and move parallel to each other as they flow to the other side. The cross-flow heat exchanger moves the fluids in a perpendicular fashion.

There are also four different designs of heat exchangers: shell and tube, plate, regenerative, and intermediate fluid or solid. The most typical type is the shell and tube design. This has multiple finned tubes. One of the fluids runs through the tubes while the other fluid runs over them, causing it to be heated or cooled. In the plate heat exchanger, the fluid flows through baffles. This causes the fluids to be separated by plates with a large surface area. This type of exchanger is typically more efficient than the shell and tube design.

The regenerative heat exchanger takes advantage of the heat from a specific process in order to heat the fluid used in the same process. These can be made with the shell and tube design or the plate design. The intermediate fluid or solid heat exchanger uses the fluids or solids within it to hold heat and move it to the other side in order to be released. This method is commonly used to cool gases while removing impurities at the same time.

A refrigerator contains a heat exchanger.
A refrigerator contains a heat exchanger.

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Discussion Comments


how do I set up a new type of heat exchanger?


can we design a rectangular detachable shell instead cylindrical shell which will enable cleaning of tubes to avoid fouling? what precautions to take in avoiding shell flange leaks?


Brazed heat exchangers employ an alloy of copper and zinc in a square design which is becoming a commonplace type of heat exchanger. This kind is likely to foul at a slower rate and is more effective than the older types.


Heat exchanger fouling is a problem which needs to be fixed regularly when the heat exchanger rusts or has excessive sediment to the point where it is rendered ineffective. The costs for this can be very high in highly industrialized countries.

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