various heat exchangers designed and manufactured by Sterling Thermal Technology based in the UK

Who invented the heat exchanger

The evolution of the heat exchanger is a story that has been ongoing for almost 150 years. The first machine we think of as a heat exchanger was patented in the late 1800s, but the advent of the modern shell and tube design, still common today, occurred some decades later.

Innovative engineers from all over the world have pushed developments in heat exchanger technology. At each stage, new types of heat exchangers have allowed for the optimisation of processes in industries as diverse as oil and gas, energy generation, chemical, defence, transport, and food & drink.

Read on to learn about the history of heat exchangers and the people that invented them.

History of heat exchangers

Beginnings of heat exchangers

In 1878, the first recorded patent for a plate heat exchanger was awarded to Albrecht Dracke of Germany.

However, the first modern and commercial examples of heat exchangers were observed in the early 1900s. Between the 1880s and 1920s, several developments were made for plate heat exchangers. This meant that many patents covered its different forms, especially for pasteurising milk.

Meanwhile, a new form of heat exchanger was elaborated in the form of a shell and tube configuration, commonly known as a shell and tube heat exchanger. Initial designs were produced during the 1920s for emerging uses in the oil industry. We started finding oil heaters/coolers, reboilers, and condensers in crude oil plants.

Then, in 1920, a closed-circuit air cooling system was developed. Otto Happel, in collaboration with Professor Ludwig Prandtl, pioneered this technology and invented a new air-cooling device called the elliptical finned tube.

Continuous developments

In the 1930s, the first spiral plate heat exchanger was created in Sweden. Then the UK started using the brazing method to create a plate-fin heat exchanger made of copper and copper alloy materials for applications in aircraft engines. Nowadays, we find these heat exchangers in applications such as cryogenic air separation, ammonia production, offshore processing, nuclear engineering, and Syngas production.

In 1935, Otto Happel and Dr Kurt Lang started working on air-cooled condensers for stationary steam turbines used for electricity generation.

In 1939, the first pilot project used an air-cooled condenser for stationary steam turbines at Waltrop Colliery in Ruhr, Germany. Find out more by exploring our air-cooled condenser page.

In the 1940s, shell and tube heat exchangers made significant progress as designers started understanding the shell side pressure drop.

In March 1955, Babcock and Wilcox Co., with inventor Johannes H Ammon filed a patent for the shell and tube heat exchanger. It wasn’t until February 1965 that the patent was granted, and it expired on the 2nd of February 1982.

Although heat exchangers continuously evolve, the basic forms of the many heat exchangers used today were developed and refined between 1920 and 1950.

Advice on heat exchangers

Why not read our blog on the key considerations for bespoke heat exchangers. If you’d like to speak to an experienced engineer, get in touch, and someone will be able to advise you.

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