What are heat exchangers used for?
You can see heat exchangers in all kinds of places, usually working to heat or cool buildings or helping engines and machines to work more efficiently. Refrigerators and air-conditioners, for example, use heat exchangers in the opposite way from central heating systems: they remove heat from a compartment or room where it’s not wanted and pump it away in a fluid to some other place where it can be dumped out of the way. The cooling fluid is completely sealed inside a network of pipes, so it never actually comes into contact with the air: it takes heat energy from the air inside and dumps it in the air outside, but it never mixes directly with that air.
In power plants or engines, exhaust gases often contain heat that’s heading uselessly away into the open air. That’s a waste of energy and something a heat exchanger can certainly reduce (though not eliminate entirely—some heat is always going to be lost). The way to solve this problem is with heat exchangers positioned inside the exhaust tail pipes or smokestacks. As the hot exhaust gases drift upward, they brush past copper fins with water flowing through them. The water carries the heat away, back into the plant. There, it might be recycled directly, maybe warming the cold gases that feed into the engine or furnace, saving the energy that would otherwise be needed to heat them up. Or it could be put to some other good use, for example, heating an office near the smokestack.
In buses, fluid used to cool down the diesel engine is often passed through a heat exchanger and the heat it reclaims is used to warm cold air from outside that is pumped up from the floor of the passenger compartment. That saves the need for having additional, wasteful electric heaters inside the bus. A car radiator is another kind of heat exchanger. Water that cools the engine flows through the radiator, which has lots of parallel, aluminum fins open to the air. As the car drives along, cold air blowing past the radiator removes some of the heat, cooling the water and heating the air and keeping the engine working efficiently. The radiator’s waste heat is used to heat the passenger compartment, just like on a bus.
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