Radiator (engine cooling)
Radiators are heat exchangers used for cooling internal combustion engines, mainly in automobiles but also in piston-engined aircraft, railway locomotives, motorcycles, stationary generating plant or any similar use of such an engine.
Internal combustion engines are often cooled by circulating a liquid called engine coolant through the engine block, where it is heated, then through a radiator where it loses heat to the atmosphere, and then returned to the engine. Engine coolant is usually water-based, but may also be oil. It is common to employ a water pump to force the engine coolant to circulate, and also for an axial fan to force air through the radiator.
Automobiles and motorcycles
In automobiles and motorcycles with a liquid-cooled internal combustion engine, a radiator is connected to channels running through the engine and cylinder head, through which a liquid (coolant) is pumped. This liquid may be water (in climates where water is unlikely to freeze), but is more commonly a mixture of water and antifreeze in proportions appropriate to the climate. Antifreeze itself is usually ethylene glycol or propylene glycol (with a small amount of corrosion inhibitor).
A typical automotive cooling system comprises:
- a series of galleries cast into the engine block and cylinder head, surrounding the combustion chambers with circulating liquid to carry away heat;
- a radiator, consisting of many small tubes equipped with a honeycomb of fins to dissipate heat rapidly, that receives and cools hot liquid from the engine;
- a water pump, usually of the centrifugal type, to circulate the coolant through the system;
- a thermostat to control temperature by varying the amount of coolant going to the radiator;
- a fan to draw cool air through the radiator.
The radiator transfers the heat from the fluid inside to the air outside, thereby cooling the fluid, which in turn cools the engine. Radiators are also often used to cool automatic transmission fluids, air conditioner refrigerant, intake air, and sometimes to cool motor oil or power steering fluid. Radiators are typically mounted in a position where they receive airflow from the forward movement of the vehicle, such as behind a front grill. Where engines are mid- or rear-mounted, it is common to mount the radiator behind a front grill to achieve sufficient airflow, even though this requires long coolant pipes. Alternatively, the radiator may draw air from the flow over the top of the vehicle or from a side-mounted grill. For long vehicles, such as buses, side airflow is most common for engine and transmission cooling and top airflow most common for air conditioner cooling.
Automobile radiators are constructed of a pair of metal or plastic header tanks, linked by a core with many narrow passageways, giving a high surface area relative to volume. This core is usually made of stacked layers of metal sheet, pressed to form channels and soldered or brazed together. For many years radiators were made from brass or copper cores soldered to brass headers. Modern radiators have aluminum cores, and often save money and weight by using plastic headers with gaskets. This construction is more prone to failure and less easily repaired than traditional materials.
An earlier construction method was the honeycomb radiator. Round tubes were swaged into hexagons at their ends, then stacked together and soldered. As they only touched at their ends, this formed what became in effect a solid water tank with many air tubes through it.
Some vintage cars use radiator cores made from coiled tube, a less efficient but simpler construction.
Radiators first used downward vertical flow, driven solely by a thermosyphon effect. Coolant is heated in the engine, becomes less dense, and so rises. As the radiator cools the fluid, the coolant becomes denser and falls. This effect is sufficient for low-power stationary engines, but inadequate for all but the earliest automobiles. All automobiles for many years have used centrifugal pumps to circulate the engine coolant because natural circulation has very low flow rates.
A system of valves or baffles, or both, is usually incorporated to simultaneously operate a small radiator inside the vehicle. This small radiator, and the associated blower fan, is called the heater core, and serves to warm the cabin interior. Like the radiator, the heater core acts by removing heat from the engine. For this reason, automotive technicians often advise operators to turn on the heater and set it to high if the engine is , to assist the main radiator.
When the engine is cold, the thermostat is closed except for a small bypass flow so that the thermostat experiences changes to the coolant temperature as the engine warms up. Engine coolant is directed by the thermostat to the inlet of the circulating pump and is returned directly to the engine, bypassing the radiator. Directing water to circulate only through the engine allows the engine to reach optimum operating temperature as quickly as possible whilst avoiding localised "hot spots." Once the coolant reaches the thermostat's activation temperature, it opens, allowing water to flow through the radiator to prevent the temperature rising higher.
Once at optimum temperature, the thermostat controls the flow of engine coolant to the radiator so that the engine continues to operate at optimum temperature. Under peak load conditions, such as driving slowly up a steep hill whilst heavily laden on a hot day, the thermostat will be approaching fully open because the engine will be producing near to maximum power while the velocity of air flow across the radiator is low. (The velocity of air flow across the radiator has a major effect on its ability to dissipate heat.) Conversely, when cruising fast downhill on a motorway on a cold night on a light throttle, the thermostat will be nearly closed because the engine is producing little power, and the radiator is able to dissipate much more heat than the engine is producing. Allowing too much flow of coolant to the radiator would result in the engine being over cooled and operating at lower than optimum temperature, resulting in decreased fuel efficiency and increased exhaust emissions. Furthermore, engine durability, reliability, and longevity are sometimes compromised, if any components (such as the crankshaft bearings) are engineered to take thermal expansion into account to fit together with the correct clearances. Another side effect of over-cooling is reduced performance of the cabin heater, though in typical cases it still blows air at a considerably higher temperature than ambient.
The thermostat is therefore constantly moving throughout its range, responding to changes in vehicle operating load, speed and external temperature, to keep the engine at its optimum operating temperature.
On vintage cars you may find a bellows type thermostat, which has a corrugated bellows containing a volatile liquid such as alcohol or acetone. These types of thermostats do not work well at cooling system pressures above about 7 psi. Modern motor vehicles typically run at around 15 psi, which precludes the use of the bellows type thermostat. On direct air-cooled engines this is not a concern for the bellows thermostat that controls a flap valve in the air passages.
Other factors influence the temperature of the engine, including radiator size and the type of radiator fan. The size of the radiator (and thus its cooling capacity) is chosen such that it can keep the engine at the design temperature under the most extreme conditions a vehicle is likely to encounter (such as climbing a mountain whilst fully loaded on a hot day).
Airflow speed through a radiator is a major influence on the heat it dissipates. Vehicle speed affects this, in rough proportion to the engine effort, thus giving crude self-regulatory feedback. Where an additional cooling fan is driven by the engine, this also tracks engine speed similarly.
Engine-driven fans are often regulated by a fan clutch from the drivebelt, which slips and reduces the fan speed at low temperatures. This improves fuel efficiency by not wasting power on driving the fan unnecessarily. On modern vehicles, further regulation of cooling rate is provided by either variable speed or cycling radiator fans. Electric fans are controlled by a thermostatic switch or the engine control unit. Electric fans also have the advantage of giving good airflow and cooling at low engine revs or when stationary, such as in slow-moving traffic.
Before the development of viscous-drive and electric fans, engines were fitted with simple fixed fans that drew air through the radiator at all times. Vehicles whose design required the installation of a large radiator to cope with heavy work at high temperatures, such as commercial vehicles and tractors would often run cool in cold weather under light loads, even with the presence of a thermostat, as the large radiator and fixed fan caused a rapid and significant drop in coolant temperature as soon as the thermostat opened. This problem can be solved by fitting a radiator blind (or radiator shroud) to the radiator that can be adjusted to partially or fully block the airflow through the radiator. At its simplest the blind is a roll of material such as canvas or rubber that is unfurled along the length of the radiator to cover the desired portion. Some older vehicles, like the World War I-era S.E.5 and SPAD S.XIII single-engined fighters, have a series of shutters that can be adjusted from the driver's or pilot's seat to provide a degree of control. Some modern cars have a series of shutters that are automatically opened and closed by the engine control unit to provide a balance of cooling and aerodynamics as needed.
Because the thermal efficiency of internal combustion engines increases with internal temperature, the coolant is kept at higher-than-atmospheric pressure to increase its boiling point. A calibrated pressure-relief valve is usually incorporated in the radiator's fill cap. This pressure varies between models, but typically ranges from 4 to 30 psi (30 to 200 kPa).
As the coolant system pressure increases with a rise in temperature, it will reach the point where the pressure relief valve allows excess pressure to escape. This will stop when the system temperature stops rising. In the case of an over-filled radiator (or header tank) pressure is vented by allowing a little liquid to escape. This may simply drain onto the ground or be collected in a vented container which remains at atmospheric pressure. When the engine is switched off, the cooling system cools and liquid level drops. In some cases where excess liquid has been collected in a bottle, this may be 'sucked' back into the main coolant circuit. In other cases, it is not.
Development in high-performance aircraft engines required improved coolants with higher boiling points, leading to the adoption of glycol or water-glycol mixtures. These led to the adoption of glycols for their antifreeze properties.
Since the development of aluminium or mixed-metal engines, corrosion inhibition has become even more important than antifreeze, and in all regions and seasons.
Boiling or overheating
An overflow tank that runs dry may result in the coolant vaporizing, which can cause localized or general overheating of the engine. Severe damage can result, such as blown headgaskets, and warped or cracked cylinder heads or cylinder blocks. Sometimes there will be no warning, because the temperature sensor that provides data for the temperature gauge (either mechanical or electrical) is exposed to water vapor, not the liquid coolant, providing a harmfully false reading.
Opening a hot radiator drops the system pressure, which may cause it to boil and eject dangerously hot liquid and steam. Therefore, radiator caps often contain a mechanism that attempts to relieve the internal pressure before the cap can be fully opened.
It is sometimes necessary for a car to be equipped with a second, or auxiliary, radiator to increase the cooling capacity, when the size of the original radiator cannot be increased. The second radiator is plumbed in series with the main radiator in the circuit. This was the case when the Audi 100 was first turbocharged creating the 200. These are not to be confused with intercoolers.
Some engines have an oil cooler, a separate small radiator to cool the engine oil. Cars with an automatic transmission often have extra connections to the radiator, allowing the transmission fluid to transfer its heat to the coolant in the radiator. These may be either oil-air radiators, as for a smaller version of the main radiator. More simply they may be oil-water coolers, where an oil pipe is inserted inside the water radiator. Though the water is hotter than the ambient air, its higher thermal conductivity offers comparable cooling (within limits) from a less complex and thus cheaper and more reliable oil cooler. Less commonly, power steering fluid, brake fluid, and other hydraulic fluids may be cooled by an auxiliary radiator on a vehicle.
Engines for stationary plant are normally cooled by radiators mounted horizontally and equipped with electric fans which consume a significant amount of the "power" the engines produce and/or consume in operation. Their cooling systems are much less "efficient" overall as multiple pumps, much more plumbing and electrical as well as mechanical power are required for all cooling. Modern automotive cooling systems for decades have used thermostatic or pneumatic or electric "fan clutches" to allow mechanical fans to "freewheel" when full cooling capacity is not required as well as compact 12-volt electric primary and/or auxiliary cooling fans on "electronic" fuel-injection and/or ignition-equipped engines and vehicles with partial or complete aluminum engine construction.
All of which can reduce and/or release engine heat without requiring constant cooling fan operation despite being less "thermally efficient" and losing more heat - and the "power" it creates and the fuel used to create it - to the atmosphere during all phases of engine operation.
Typically aluminum engines run "cooler" at all engine speeds and loads unless specifically "built" and "tuned" and "cooled" to run "warm" for higher "fuel efficiency" and usually with much higher compression and "pumping losses" compared to "cast-iron" engines with much "heavier" but also much more "efficient" engines when it comes to keeping the heat "inside" the engine's cylinders where it is created and converted to "power".
Aluminum components such as cylinder blocks and heads are entirely absent in the "industrial engine industry" where "cast-iron" heavy-duty diesels dominate in "fuel efficiency" and "longevity" because they keep much more heat "inside" than any aluminum engine could ever create and convert to "power" without having to be as much "larger" as aluminum is "lighter" than "cast-iron".
- Opel Omega & Senator Service and Repair Manual. Haynes. 1996. ISBN 978-1-85960-342-0.