All About Intercoolers

Several industrial manufacturing processes produce substantial quantities of heat that must be removed to maintain equipment integrity and prevent alteration to finished products. Consequently, the use of intercoolers and heat exchangers is quite common. While it is easy to confuse the two, this article will highlight the clear differences between both types of process cooling equipment.

Heat Exchanger or Intercooler?

People often confuse verbiage like “intercoolers” and “heat exchangers,” not understanding their differences. We’re here to set the record straight. Let’s discuss everything you need to know about intercoolers. Before deciding on a heat exchanger or an intercooler unit, industrial process managers must understand each device and how it works.

By definition, a heat exchanger is a generic term used to describe a device that pulls out the heat generated by an industrial system, allowing rapid cooling. A heat exchanger is typically composed of tubing filled with coolant that utilizes the principles of thermodynamics (flow of thermal energy between two media in contact) to eliminate heat from a process it is integrated with.

Simply put, an intercooler is a cooling device that functions to eliminate heat generated by an air compression unit. Intercoolers are typically found in turbo-charged engines and serve to restore the air temperature within the air compressor to near ambient air values. An intercooler cools the air before the engine intake, thus earning it the prefix inter.

Heat Exchanger vs. Intercooler

From everything we’ve mentioned so far, it’s easy to now see how an intercooler and a heat exchanger differ. The term heat exchanger can be used loosely to define cooling devices that exchange heat between two media. Meanwhile, intercoolers are a particular form of cooling equipment that achieves cooling within air compressor units.

Further, heat exchangers are more flexible in the range of cooling support they offer as different variants exist, custom-made for a broad range of industrial cooling applications. Examples include:

  • Shell and tube exchangers
  • Boilers and evaporators
  • Double pipe heat exchangers
  • Plate heat exchangers

These heat exchanger types play critical roles in several industrial processes, including oil refining and cooling, fuel gas systems, petrochemical manufacturing, and petroleum distillation.

How to Choose an Intercooler

Choosing the proper intercooler for your unique operation doesn’t necessarily need to be a daunting process. However, there are some key factors to consider before deciding on an intercooler to ensure the most compatible unit is selected.

  • Intercooler type (air-cooled, water-cooled)
  • Anticipated system temperatures
  • Size of cooling operation
  • Maximum compressed air flow rate

Intercooler Type

Intercoolers may be air-cooled or water-cooled depending on manufacturer design and operator preferences. While both configurations can achieve adequate cooling of compressed air, the availability of the cooling medium is a key selection criterion.

Air-cooled intercoolers can be used in virtually any environment by utilizing ambient air to pull heat out of associated processes. Water-cooled intercoolers require a steady flow of cool water to effectively achieve thermal exchange with a heated industrial process. An absence of continuous flow of water will make a water-cooled intercooler an impractical choice.

Anticipated System Temperature

Each industrial application requires a unique temperature of the compressed air flowing through it. When deciding on the type of intercooler to integrate, operators must pay attention to the temperature of the air entering the exchanger and the thermal reading anticipated at the outlet after cooling. Only intercoolers able to achieve satisfactory outlet pressures should be considered.

Size of Cooling Operation

Intercoolers of various sizes and thermal ratings are available for cooling turbo-charged engines. Matching an appropriately sized intercooler to a cooling process is crucial to operational efficiency and longevity of associated processes components.

Maximum Compressed Air Flow Rate

The most effective intercooler must achieve optimal cooling at the maximum airflow rate of the compressor it is attached to. This is another crucial factor all operators must consider when choosing an intercooler device.

Lower flow rate operations might benefit from smaller-sized intercoolers. In contrast, high flow rate processes are better served by equipment with a larger surface area that permits more rapid cooling to the desired outlet temperatures.

Intercooler Alternatives

In operations where the integration of an intercooler is not practical, other heat exchanger units can be installed in continuum with an air compression unit. Aftercoolers are heat exchange devices that can rapidly cool air just emerging from a compressor outlet.

This process cooling equipment has a similar setup to an intercooler with tubing filled with water, pulling heat from the compressed air (water-cooled type) or with compressed air pipes being bathed in cool ambient air (air-cooled type). This device can rapidly drop compressed air temperatures to between 5-20°F.

Finding the Right Partner for Your Industrial Applications

At NiGen, we offer excellent air compressors and compressed air aftercoolers for players across several industries. We provide high-quality air compressor rentals critical to industrial manufacturing and the right cooling systems needed to guarantee optimized productivity.

To gain more information on our products and services or get a quote, please contact the NiGen team today!