Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Cooling Towers: Operating Principles and Systems

evaporative cooling tower made of HDPE plastic
Example of evaporative cooling tower, fabricated
from HDPE plastic to resist corrosion.
Image courtesy Delta Cooling Towers
The huge, perfectly shaped cylindrical towers stand tall amidst a landscape, with vapor billowing from their spherical, open tops into the blue sky. Such an image usually provokes a thought related to nuclear power or a mysterious energy inaccessible to the millions of people who drive by power plants every day. In reality, cooling towers – whether the hyperboloid structures most often associated with the aforementioned nuclear power plants or their less elegantly shaped cousins – are essential, process oriented tools that serve as the final step in removing heat from a process or facility. The cooling towers at power plants serve as both an adjuster of a control variable essential to the process and also as a fascinating component of the process behind power creation. The importance and applicability of cooling towers is extensive, making them fundamentally useful for industrial operations in power generation, oil refining, petrochemical plants, commercial/industrial HVAC, and process cooling.

In principle, an evaporative cooling tower involves the movement of a fluid, usually water with some added chemicals, through a series of parts or sections to eventually result in the reduction of its heat content and temperature. Liquid heated by the process operation is pumped through pipes to reach the tower, and then gets sprayed through nozzles or other distribution means onto the ‘fill’ of the tower, reducing the velocity of the liquid to increase the fluid dwell time in the fill area. The fill area is designed to maximize the liquid surface area, increasing contact between water and air. Electric motor driven fans force air into the tower and across the fill area. As air passes across the liquid surface, a portion of the water evaporates, transferring heat from the water to the air and reducing in the water temperature. The cooled water is then collected and pumped back to the process-related equipment allowing for the cycle to repeat. The process and associated dispersion of heat allows for the cooling tower to be classified as a heat rejection device, transferring waste heat from the process or operation to the atmosphere.

Evaporative cooling towers rely on outdoor air conditions being such that evaporation will occur at a rate sufficient to transfer the excess heat contained in the water solution. Analysis of the range of outdoor air conditions at the installation site is necessary to assure proper operation of the cooling tower throughout the year. Evaporative cooling towers are of an open loop design, with the fluid exposed to air.

A closed loop cooling tower, sometimes referred to as a fluid cooler, does not directly expose the heat transfer fluid to the air. The heat exchanger can take many forms, but a finned coil is common. A closed loop system will generally be less efficient that an open loop design because only sensible heat is recovered from the fluid in the closed loop system. A closed loop fluid cooler can be advantageous for smaller heat loads, or in facilities without sufficient technical staff to monitor or maintain operation of an evaporative cooling tower.

Thanks to their range of applications, cooling towers vary in size from the monolithic structures utilized by power plants to small rooftop units. Removing the heat from the water used in cooling systems allows for the recycling of the heat transfer fluid back to the process or equipment that is generating heat. This cycle of heat transfer enables heat generating processes to remain stable and secure. The cooling provided by an evaporative tower allows for the amount of supply water to be vastly lower than the amount which would be otherwise needed. No matter whether the cooling tower is small or large, the components of the tower must function as an integrated system to ensure both adequate performance and longevity. Understanding elements which drive performance - variable flow capability, potential HVAC ‘free cooling’, the splash type fill versus film type fill, drift eliminators, nozzles, fans, and driveshaft characteristics - is essential to the success of the cooling tower and its use in both industrial and commercial settings.

Design or selection of an evaporative cooling tower is an involved process, requiring examination and analysis of many facets. Share your heat transfer requirements and challenges with cooling tower specialists, combining your own facilities and process knowledge and experience with their application expertise to develop an effective solution.`