Thermal performance of a micro heat exchanger (MHE) working with zirconia-based nanofluids for industrial cooling
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An experimental investigation was performed with the view to assess the heat transfer characteristics of a water-based nanofluid in a micro heat exchanger employed to quench a high heat flux heater for industrial and microelectronic cooling applications. The experiments were conducted at heat fluxes 10–70 kW/m2 and for nanofluids at various mass concentrations of 0.1–0.3% and passing flow rates of 0.1–5 l/min. Thermo-physical properties of the nanofluid including thermal conductivity, heat capacity, density and viscosity of nanofluid were experimentally measured at 40 °C close to the temperature of the experiments. Results showed that the heat transfer coefficient and pressure drop were augmented by 40.1% and 67% at wt% = 0.3 compared to the base fluid, respectively. The enhancement in the heat transfer coefficient was associated with the improvement in the thermal conductivity of the base fluid together with the intensification of Brownian motion and thermo-phoresis effect. The increase in the pressure drop was also attributed to the increase in the viscosity of the working fluid which induces layer–layer frictional forces in the bulk of the coolant in micro heat exchanger.
KeywordsNanofluid Zirconia/water Micro heat exchanger Convective heat transfer Heat transfer coefficient
The microchannel surface area, m2
The heat capacity of the eutectic, kJ/kg °C
Diameter of the microchannel (hydraulic diameter), m
Height of microchannel, m
Digital current, A
Thermal conductivity, W/m °C
- L or L
Mass flow rate, kg/m2 s
Number of microchannel
Heat transfer, W
Applied heat flux, kW/m2
Distance between thermocouple and wall of microchannel, m
Fluid mean velocity, m/s
Width of microchannel, m
Axial distance, m
Efficiency of the fin
Fluid flow rate, m/s
Heat exchangers play a key role in cooling systems and power cycles thanks to their anomalous thermal features, contact surface area and the great heat transfer coefficient. Depending on the application, type of the coolant, the rate of cooling and amount of the heat transfer rate, different models and standards have been defined to fabricate efficient heat exchanging media [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7]. When it comes to the surface cooling technology, liquid blocks and heat sinks are pioneer types of heat exchanging media with the capability to remove the significant amount of thermal heat dissipated from the heating surface using a very small space [4, 8, 9, 10]. For instance, to cool a central processing unit (CPU), normally a heat sink equipped with a forced convective fan is used which is not only a noiseless technology but also an efficient conductive/convective cooling system. However, air and conventional coolants used in such systems have reached their limitations [11, 12, 13, 14]. For example, the thermal conductivity of water is around 0.59 W/m K, which is way lower than other coolants such as liquid metals, silicone-based liquid coolants and oil-based working fluids [12, 15, 16]. Thereby, seeking some alternatives to replace the conventional coolant has been targeted by the researchers.
Since nanofluid was introduced in Aragon National Laboratories (ANL) [17, 18], extensive studies have been conducted to further understand the micro-mechanisms involved in the nanofluids. By a definition, a nanofluid is a colloidal mixture of a conventional coolant and some conductive particles with the nominal size of zero to 100 nano-meters [19, 20, 21, 22]. The presence of these nanoparticles can intensify some thermo-physical properties of the nanofluids including thermal conductivity, heat capacity, and density. Together with these properties, viscosity has also been reported to be changed due to the particle–particle behaviour [23, 24, 25, 26, 27]. Thanks to the changes occurred in the physical properties of the coolant, an enhancement in the heat transfer coefficient has been reported in the literature [28, 29, 30], while there are some studies that vote against the enhancement of heat transfer due to the nanofluids [31, 32, 33]. Such controversial reports are the main driver for further study on nanofluids. That being said, much effort has been made to implement nanofluid for cooling purposes not only in the heat exchangers but also in cooling systems. For example, in several studies conducted by Sarafraz et al., on various groups of nanofluids [12, 34, 35, 36, 37] and base fluids [34, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43] and for different thermodynamic systems [11, 37, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48], the heat transfer characteristics of carbon nanotube-based nanofluid inside the various heat exchangers were investigated. They also conducted the experiments on some modified surfaces with circular fins, rectangular channels and tubular cross sections with the view to enhance the heat transfer coefficient, bubble formation (in two-phase experiments) while taking advantages of nanofluid to enhance the thermo-physical properties of the water. They found out that the HTC on the smooth heating surface decreased, while for the modified one, the HTC increased by 56% and 77% for wt% = 0.1 and wt% = 0.3, respectively. They also noticed that the bubble formation might be affected due to the presence of nanofluids which created a fouling layer on the surface resulting in the change in HTC.
Apart from two-phase experiments, some researchers focused on the nanofluid’s physical properties. Much effort has made to investigate the influence of nanoparticles on the enhancement of the thermal conductivity and the density of nanofluids with the view to enhance the HTC and the ability of nanofluid for thermal energy storage. It has been shown that such conductive particles have plausible influence on the heat capacity, thermal conductivity and density of the base fluid. However, disadvantage of presence of nanoparticles is reflected in the increase in the value of the pressure drop and also a deterioration in the HTC in boiling and evaporation studies [49, 50, 51, 52, 53].
There are other groups of study focusing on the potential of nanofluids on the enhancement of the forced convective heat transfer in the cooling and heating systems. For example, in an empirical study performed by Han et al. , several experiments were conducted to identify and measure the effect of aluminium oxide nanofluid on the HTC of the system in a pipe–pipe heat exchanging medium. They showed that the HTC of the nanofluid can be increased with an increase in the concentration, film temperature and flow rate of nanofluid. A maximum enhancement of ~ 24% for the largest concentration of nanoparticles was reported. Similar findings were also demonstrated by Bahraei et al.  by doing some experiments on a mini-channel heat exchanging system. They reported 53% enhancement in the HTC of nanofluid. Sarkar et al.  experimentally evaluated the heat transfer performance of a PHE (plate heat exchanger) working with a mixture of two different nanofluids. The HTC increased by 39.1% in comparison with the base fluid. Vinod et al. , conducted some experiments on various nanofluids including iron oxide, alumina and copper oxide in a shell and tube cooler. He found that the HTC of the system increased significantly which was attributed to the presence of the nanoparticles. In another research conducted by Kumar et al. , the HTC of a nanofluid inside a PHE was experimentally measured and it was found that not only the HTC of the system is improved but also the exergic efficiency of the system can be increased which is due to the heat dissipation with nanoparticles. Also, Brownian motion and thermo-phoresis phenomena were responsible for these enhancements. Anoop et al.  studied the potential effect of silica nanofluid on the HTC and pressure drop in an industrial heat exchanger with the view to put one step forward towards the commercialization of nanofluids. Their results were later confirmed by Peyghambarzadeh et al. [60, 61, 62]. Despite the promising enhancement in the HTC, still pumping power, pressure drop and friction factors were the main challenging parameters. The enhancement in the pressure drop was attributed to the frictional forces caused by nanoparticles. Such enhancement in frictional forces further increased the viscosity of nanofluid resulting in the pressure drop enhancement. Hence, no firm conclusion was made on the nanofluids unless more experiments are conducted.
Facing the above literature, further investigation is required on the plausible application of the nanofluids as the working fluid inside the heat exchanging medium. Zirconia nanoparticles have plausible thermo-physical characteristics and have recently been used for various applications including two-phase flow systems. However, the thermal performance of zirconia nanofluid dispersed in water in a microchannel under a single-phase flow regime has not been investigated yet. Also, it is expected that by combining the plausible thermal performance of the zirconia nanofluid with the advantages offered by a microchannel, anomalous heat transfer coefficient and thermal performance can be achieved. Hence, in the present research, for the first time, an experimental study is conducted on the heat transfer characteristics of the zirconia nanofluid in a microchannel heat exchanging system. Influence of the fluid flow rate and the heat flux on the HTC, pressure drop and the friction factor of the system is experimentally investigated. Also, the thermo-physical properties of the nanofluids were experimentally measured and compared with the base fluid to better understand the role of the thermo-physical properties on the enhancement and/or deterioration of the heat transfer inside the microchannel.
Before running the experiments, the experimental setup was calibrated with deionised water and the system was de-aerated with a vacuum pump to ensure the single-phase heat transfer regime within the system. All the sensors and the instruments were connected to a data logger (manufactured by NI) with frequency of 1 kHz to collect the data and process them with a computer.
The experimental conditions used for the present research
Heat flux, (qʹʹ)
Flow rate, (m)
Mass concentration, (wt%)
Summary of the stability tests performed on the nanofluids
Zeta potential (mV)
wt% = 0.1
wt% = 0.2
wt% = 0.3
As can be seen, the prepared nanofluids were stable for more than 2 weeks. The stability of the nanofluids did not change over this period of time. Also, during the test, neither agglomeration nor clustering and deposition were observed in the system.
Data reduction and uncertainty disclosure
For estimating the heat transfer between the microchannel and the working fluid, following equation was implemented:
Here, the friction factor can be calculated with the following equation:
To check the uncertainty of the experiments, Kline–McClintock  equation was applied as follows:
The uncertainty of the instruments and the parameters used in the present research
K-type thermometer manufactured by Omega
± 1% of reading value
Pressure drop value, (kPa)
Kistler pressure sensor
± 1% of reading value
Flow meter, (l/min)
Flownetix 110 series
± 0.2 of reading value
Overall fluid flow
The overall heat loss
Estimated friction factor
Results and discussion
Figure 3 (the above figure) also represents the dependence of heat transfer coefficient on Reynolds number for various mass concentrations of nanofluids. As can be seen, with an increase in the mass concentration of nanofluid, the heat transfer coefficient increases. For example, at Re = 500, for wt% = 0.1 and at 40 °C, the heat transfer coefficient is 2890 W/m2 K, while for the same Re number and at wt % = 0.3, it is 3390 W/m2 K, increasing by 17.3%. The enhancement in the heat transfer coefficient can be attributed to the increase in the thermal conductivity and other physical properties of the nanofluid, which has been discussed in Sect. “Thermo-hydraulic performance analysis”. Still, the enhancement in the Brownian motion is the main reason for the enhancement of the heat transfer coefficient at larger Reynolds numbers, which is in accordance with the results published in the literature [66, 67].
The increase in the pressure drop is associated with the increase in the viscosity of nanofluid due to the frictional forces between the layers of the fluid. In fact, the presence of nanoparticles increases the frictional forces resulting in the increase in viscosity and the pressure drop of the microchannel.
Thermo-hydraulic performance analysis
Figure 6 presents the dependence of thermal performance of system on Reynolds number for various mass concentrations of nanofluids. As can be seen, the effect of HTC on thermal performance is stronger than that observed for the pressure drop. It means that despite the increase in the value of pressure drop, thermal performance of the system increases. For example, the thermal performance of the system at Re = 600 and wt% = 0.1 is 1.07, while for the same conditions and wt% = 0.3, the thermal performance is 1.19. The maximum enhancement in thermal performance of the system was at the largest Reynolds number and wt% of nanofluids, which was 1.13 for Re = 1200 and wt% = 0.3.
Physical properties of the zirconia nanofluid
Results showed that with an increase in the applied heat flux to the microchannel, the heat transfer coefficient increased. The maximum enhancement in the heat transfer coefficient due to the heat flux increment was 181% and for wt% = 0.3. This also further proved that nanofluids have the potential to be utilised in high heat flux conditions as they have plausible heat transfer coefficient at high heat flux conditions.
An increase in the flow rate of nanofluid increased the heat transfer coefficient together with the pressure drop showing that there is a trade-off between pressure drop, friction factor and heat transfer coefficient. Hence, determination of thermal performance was found to be a key parameter which shows the real enhancement/reduction in the thermal performance of the system.
Thermo-hydraulic performance of the system increased at any mass concentrations, flow rate and heat flux (compared to water) and the effect of heat transfer enhancement on the thermal performance of the system was stronger than pressure drop showing the plausible thermal features of nanofluids for cooling applications.
Thermal conductivity, heat capacity and density of water were enhanced by adding the zirconia nanoparticles. These physical properties enhanced the heat transfer within the nanofluid. Brownian motion and thermos-phoresis were the main contributing mechanisms to the heat transfer enhancement.
Overall, the zirconia nanofluid showed a great thermal performance despite a pressure drop augmentation. Hence, this nanofluid is recommended for the thermal applications provided the optimum mass concentration of the nanoparticles is identified to minimise the trade-off between the pressure drop and Nusselt number.
The authors of this work tend to appreciate Yazd University for their financial supports.
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