March 31, 2016
iStock photo (above), photo courtesy of Department of Energy (below)
Three-dimensional printing is revolutionizing how objects are manufactured in almost every industry, from vehicles to medical devices to biotech. The University of Maryland, through a partnership with 3D Systems and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Building Technologies Office, has used 3D printing to prototype one of the most important enabling technologies in a building — the heat exchanger, according to the department.
This next-generation heat exchanger weighs 20 percent less, performs at 20 percent more efficiency and can be manufactured much quicker, compared to current designs.
Heat exchangers play a vital role in the modern world, the Department of Energy notes. Almost any time heating or cooling is needed, a heat exchanger is used. It exchanges heat from one area to another. On a global scale, heat exchange is a multibillion-dollar industry, touching everything from consumer goods to automotive and aerospace engineering.
There were several advantages 3D printing offered University of Maryland researchers when making exchanger prototypes.
Modernizing an outdated process
For decades, manufacturers have been using a type of heat exchanger known as tube-fin — without any significant changes. While new, high-performing designs existed, companies had struggled to commercialize them because they were too complex to be economically manufactured with traditional processes, according to the DOE.
But unlike traditional manufacturing, 3D printing a complex design costs no more than 3D printing a simple one. 3D Systems’ direct metal printing process allowed researchers to use non-conventional, variable shapes that increase the heat exchanger’s efficiency.
University of Maryland researchers also were able to speed up their design process, thanks to 3D printing. Typically, the manufacturing process for a prototype of a unique and high-performing design can take months; by using 3D printing, researchers completed the process in weeks. This efficiency enabled researchers to test the new designs earlier and more frequently during the project, the DOE said.
Improved performance, less waste
The Maryland team optimized their heat exchanger design so it could be printed in a single, continuous piece. As a result, prototypes are increasingly resistant to pressure or leakage, resulting in improved performance and reliability—and ultimately, a more efficient system heating or cooling a building.
Because the heat exchanger is being printed as a singular piece with proven materials, this ensures little waste material is generated, saving money for manufacturers while reducing their environmental footprint.
The heat exchanger, which acts as both an evaporator and a condenser, can be used in commercial and residential air-conditioning or heat pump systems of varying sizes. The University of Maryland’s new 1 kilowatt (kW) miniaturized air-to-refrigerant heat exchanger prototype paves the way for new designs to help reduce the nearly 7 quads of energy that is annually used for heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration in the United States.
In addition to the 1kW model, a 10kW prototype will also be fabricated as part of the current project. Both prototypes will be tested and demonstrated in a three-ton heat pump. The Maryland research team expects the new heat exchangers will be in commercial production within five years.
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