University of Illinois Grainger College of Engineering researchers are demonstrating next-generation energy technology using topology optimization and metal 3D printing to design ultra-compact, high-power heat exchangers (Most are commonly called radiators).

Used in most major industries – including energy, water, manufacturing, transportation, construction, electronic, chemical, petrochemical, agriculture and aerospace – heat exchangers transfer thermal energy from one medium to another. The team reported their technical advancement in the journal Joule.

For decades, heat exchanger designs have remained relatively unchanged. Recent advancements in 3D printing allow the production of three-dimensional exchanger designs previously thought impossible. These new and innovative designs operate significantly more effectively and efficiently but require specific software tools and design methods to manufacture the high-performance devices.

Using shape optimization to design an ultra-compact heat exchanger and manufacturing the devices using metal additive manufacturing makes a device with 20× higher specific power than a comparable commercial device. Image Credit: University of Illinois Grainger College of Engineering. Click image for the largest view.

Recognizing the need to unlock new, high-performing heat exchangers, Grainger College of Engineering researchers have developed software tools that enable new 3D heat exchanger designs.

William King, professor of Mechanical Science and Engineering at The Grainger College of Engineering and co-study leader said, “We developed shape optimization software to design a high-performance heat exchanger. The software allows us to identity 3D designs that are significantly different and better than conventional designs.”

The team started by studying a type of exchanger known as a tube-in-tube heat exchanger – where one tube is nested inside another tube. Tube-in-tube heat exchangers are commonly used in drinking water and building energy systems. Using a combination of the shape optimization software and additive manufacturing, the researchers designed fins (only made possible using metal 3D printing) internal to the tubes.

Nenad Miljkovic, associate professor of Mechanical Science and Engineering and co-study leader said, “We designed, fabricated and tested an optimized tube-in-tube heat exchanger. Our optimized heat exchanger has about 20 times higher volumetric power density than a current state-of-the-art commercial tube-in-tube device.”

With billions of heat exchangers in use worldwide today and even more attention placed on our need to reduce fossil fuel consumption, compact and efficient heat exchangers are increasing in demand, particularly in industries where heat exchanger size and mass significantly impacts performance, range and costs.


Your humble writer finds this development quite interesting and very likely to find market legs. Whether one considers a tube in tube application of one controlled media to another or the common radiator moving heat into or out of a controlled media to an uncontrolled one, the team’s work is just getting started.

We’re seeing innovation intuition and inventiveness in a premium example here. This tech is sure to save a bunch of energy, expense, operating space, and other attributes across a very wide array of other technologies. One can well imagine the common radiator and other heat exchangers are just about to experience a revolution.


1 Comment so far

  1. Matt Musson on September 23, 2021 9:10 AM

    This is the kind of revolutionary application that demonstrates the value of metal printing. I think this is going to be a big deal!

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