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The Best Heat Transfer Fluids for Liquid Cooling

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May 24, 2022

Once you’ve determined liquid cooling is the solution, do you know what heat transfer fluid to use? One of the most important factors when choosing a liquid cooling technology for your application is the compatibility of the heat transfer fluid with the wetted surfaces of the cooling components ( liquid cold plates or heat exchangers) or system and your application.

Introduction to Common Liquids for Cooling Systems

Heat transfer fluid compatibility is critical in ensuring long-term system reliability. Some other requirements for a heat transfer fluid may include high thermal conductivity and specific heat, low viscosity, low freezing point, high flash point, low corrosivity, low toxicity, and thermal stability. Based on these criteria, the most commonly used coolants for liquid cooling applications today are:

  • Water
  • Deionized Water
  • Inhibited Glycol and Water Solutions
  • Dielectric Fluids

By selecting a compatible pairing of heat transfer fluid and wetted materials you’ll minimize the risk of corrosion as well as optimize thermal performance. Copper is compatible with water and glycol/water solutions and aluminum is compatible with glycol/water solutions, dielectric fluids, and oils. When using deionized water or other corrosive fluids, however, stainless steel is generally recommended since it is more corrosion resistant than other metals. (See Table 1.) Most cooling systems are compatible with water or glycol/water solutions but require special plumbing for compatibility with deionized water or a dielectric fluid such as polyalphaolefin (PAO).

Table 1
Materials & Fluid Compatibility Water Glycol Deionized Water Dielectric Fluids (Fluorinert, PAO)
Copper X X X
Aluminum X X
Stainless Steel X X X X

Water

Water is one of the best choices for liquid cooling applications due to its high heat capacity and thermal conductivity. It is also compatible with copper, which is one of the best heat transfer materials to use for your fluid path. Water for liquid cooling comes from different sources. Tap water, for example, comes from a publicly owned water treatment facility or a well. The benefit to using facility or tap water is that it is readily available and inexpensive. What is important to note about facility water or tap water is that it is likely untreated and is therefore likely to contain impurities. These impurities could cause corrosion in the liquid cooling loop and/or clog fluid channels. Therefore, using good quality water is recommended in order to minimize corrosion and optimize thermal performance.

Water’s ability to corrode metal can vary considerably depending on its chemical composition. Chloride, for example, is commonly found in tap water and can be corrosive. Facility or tap water should not be used in liquid cooling loops if it contains more than 25 PPM of chloride. The levels of calcium and magnesium in the water also need to be considered, since calcium and magnesium can form scale on metal surfaces and reduce the thermal performance of the components. (See Table 2.)

Table 2
Mineral Recommended Limit
Calcium < 50 ppm
Magnesium < 50 ppm
Total Hardness < 100 ppm (5 grains)
Chloride < 25 ppm
Sulfate < 25 ppm

If you determine that your facility water or tap water contains a large percent of minerals, salts, or other impurities, you can either filter the water or opt to purchase filtered or deionized water. If your facility or tap water is relatively pure and meets recommended limits it is still generally recommended that you add a corrosion inhibitor for additional protection. Phosphate is an effective corrosion inhibitor for stainless steel and most aluminum components. It is also effective for pH control. One disadvantage of phosphate, however, is that it precipitates with calcium in hard water. For copper and brass, tolyltriazole is a common and highly effective corrosion inhibitor. For aluminum, organic acids such as 2-ethyl hexanoic or sebacic acid offer protection.

Deionized Water

Deionized water is water that has had its ions removed, including sodium, calcium, iron, copper, chloride, and bromide. The deionization process removes harmful minerals, salts, and other impurities that can cause corrosion or scale formation. Compared to tap water and most fluids deionized water has a high resistivity. Deionized water is an excellent insulator which is why it is used in the manufacturing of electrical components where parts must be electrically isolated. However, as water’s resistivity increases, its corrosivity increases as well. Deionized water will pH at approximately 7.0 but will quickly become acidic when exposed to air. The carbon dioxide in air will dissolve in the water, introducing ions and giving an acidic pH of around 5.0. It is necessary to use a corrosion inhibitor when using water that is virtually pure. When using deionized water in a recirculating chiller special high purity plumbing is needed. The fittings should be nickel-plated and the evaporators should be nickel-brazed. When using deionized water in cold plates or heat exchangers, stainless steel tubing is recommended.

How to use Deionized Water in a Liquid Cooling System

Tap water meets the needs of most liquid-cooling applications. However, deionized (DI) water has chemical and electrical properties that make it the optimal choice for cooling when the liquid circuit contains micro-channels or when sensitive electronics are involved.

As the name implies, DI water has an extremely low concentration of ions which imparts important performance attributes. First, it eliminates mineral deposits which block the coolant flow. This will degrade cooling efficiency and system operating performance. Second, it eliminates the risk of electrical arcing due to static charge build up from the circulating coolant. The arcing can damage sensitive control electronics in the equipment being cooled. The lack of ions in DI water eliminates both of these problems.

Applications that require the use of DI water are found in industries such as:

  • Lasers
  • Medical equipment
  • Laboratory instrumentatio
  • Pharmaceutical production
  • Cosmetic Food processing
  • Semiconductor manufacturing
  • Plating and other chemical processing

Care must be exercised when using DI water. The very lack of ions also makes this coolant unusually corrosive. Called the “universal solvent,” DI water is one of the most aggressive solvents known. In fact, to a varying degree, it will dissolve everything to which it is exposed. Therefore, all materials in the cooling loop must be corrosion-resistant.

Copper and many other common materials are not compatible with DI water and will contaminate it. When you design a system using DI water, be sure to specify DI-compatible materials such as stainless steel or nickel.

In a heat exchanger or cold plate, we recommend a stainless steel fluid path such as those in our heat exchangers or our CP10 cold plates. A DI friendly recirculating chiller should contain a nickel-brazed evaporator, a stainless steel pump head, and nickel-plated fittings. Finally, to maintain DI water purity, a deionization cartridge must be included. As with all consumables the DI cartridge must be replaced periodically.

In summary, DI water-cooled systems are critical to the reliable operation of many types of equipment. When properly designed and maintained, these systems can provide reliable cooling and leak-free operation for many years.

Inhibited Glycol and Water Solutions

The two types of glycol most commonly used for liquid cooling applications are ethylene glycol and water (EGW) and propylene glycol and water (PGW) solutions. Ethylene glycol has desirable thermal properties including a high boiling point, low freezing point, stability over a wide range of temperatures, and high specific heat and thermal conductivity. It also has a low viscosity and, therefore, reduced pumping requirements. Although EGW has more desirable physical properties than PGW, PGW is used in applications where toxicity might be a concern. PGW is generally recognized as safe for use in food or food processing applications and can also be used in enclosed spaces.

Even though EGW’s thermal conductivity is not as high as water it provides freeze protection that can be beneficial during use or shipping. In fact, ethylene glycol is the chemical used in automotive antifreeze. However, automotive glycol should not be used in a cooling system or heat exchanger because it contains silicate-based rust inhibitors. These inhibitors can gel and foul, coating heat exchanger surfaces and reducing their efficiency. Silicates have also been shown to significantly reduce the lifespan of pump seals. While the wrong inhibitors can cause significant problems, the right inhibitors can prevent corrosion and significantly prolong the life of a liquid cooling loop. Inhibited glycols can be purchased from companies such as Dynalene, Houghton Chemical, or the Dow Chemical Company and are highly recommended over non-inhibited glycols.

As the concentration of glycol in the solution increases the thermal performance of the heat transfer fluid decreases. It is best to use the lowest possible concentration of inhibited glycol necessary to meet your corrosion and freeze protection needs. Dow Chemical recommends a minimum concentration of 25-30% EGW4. At this minimum concentration the ethylene glycol also serves as a bactericide and fungicide. With recirculating chillers a solution of 30% ethylene glycol will result in only about a 3% drop in thermal performance over using water alone but will provide corrosion protection as well as freeze protection down to -15°C (5°F).

The quality of the water used in the glycol solution is also important. The water should meet or exceed the limits specified in Table 2, even if you’re using an inhibited glycol. Ions in the water can cause the inhibitor to fall out of solution, resulting in fouling and corrosion.

Adding Glycol into your Liquid Coolant


When is it necessary to add glycol in your coolant?

Boyd recommends using a 30/70 glycol-water mixture with its recirculating chillers whenever the coolant temperature set point is below 10°C (48°F). Glycol lowers the freezing point of the mixture *(Figure 1).

In a recirculating chiller, the liquid coolant (usually water) flows through the application, removing excess heat and in doing so, raising the temperature of the liquid. This coolant then needs to be returned to set point temperature by flowing through a heat exchanger called the evaporator. Please refer to “The Basics of Compressor-Based Refrigeration – Applications Note” for more information on how a refrigeration system works.

The evaporator is a heat exchanger. It allows the transfer of heat between the liquid coolant and the system’s refrigerant gas. The refrigerant’s temperature must be lower than the temperature of coolant liquid in order for heat to flow and for coolant temperature to be effectively returned to set point.

The temperature of the refrigerant is typically 5°C to 10°C lower than coolant temperature to allow heat to flow. Consequently, if the temperature set point is below 10°C (48°F), the refrigerant’s temperature can be close to, or even below the freezing point of water. If the coolant freezes, the evaporator can become obstructed, preventing water flow. Water expands as it freezes and this can cause permanent damage to the evaporator.

Adding glycol to your coolant reduces the freezing point of the coolant to around -34°C, preventing any risk of damage to your chiller caused by freezing.

Glycol does not transfer heat as well as pure water (Fig. 2 & 3). It is therefore preferable to use 100% water where there is no risk of freezing. However, when the set point is below 10°C (48°F) there is a risk of freezing and Glycol should be added to water. The slight decrease in performance is a necessary trade-off to safely allow the lower temperature set point.



Dielectric Fluid

While the food industry might be more likely to select PGW over EGW for heat transfer, the power electronics, laser, and semiconductor industries might be more likely to choose dielectric fluids over water. A dielectric fluid is non-conductive and therefore preferred over water when working with sensitive electronics. Perfluorinated carbons, such as 3M’s dielectric fluid Fluorinert™, are non-flammable, non-explosive, and thermally stable over a wide range of operating temperatures. Although deionized water is also non-conductive, Fluorinert™ is less corrosive than deionized water and therefore may be a better choice for some applications. However, water has a thermal conductivity of approximately 0.59 W/m°C (0.341 BTU/hr ft °F), while Fluorinert™ FC-77 has a thermal conductivity of only about 0.063 W/m°C (0.036 BTU/hr ft °F).5 Fluorinert™ is also much more expensive than deionized water.

PAO is a synthetic hydrocarbon used frequently in military and aerospace applications for its dielectric properties and wide range of operating temperatures. For example, the fire control radars on today’s jet fighters are liquid cooled using PAO. For testing cold plates and heat exchangers that will use PAO as the heat transfer fluid, PAO compatible recirculating chillers are also available. PAO has a thermal conductivity of 0.14 W/m°C (0.081 BTU/hr ft °F). So although dielectric fluids provide low risk liquid cooling for electronics, they generally have a much lower thermal conductivity than water and most water-based solutions.

Water, deionized water, glycol/water solutions, and dielectric fluids such as fluorocarbons and PAO are the heat transfer fluids most commonly used in high performance liquid cooling applications. It’s important to select a heat transfer fluid that is compatible with your fluid path, offers corrosion protection or minimal risk of corrosion, and meets your application’s specific requirements. With the right chemistry, your heat transfer fluid can provide very effective cooling for your liquid cooling loop. For more information on liquid cooling technologies and the proper working fluid to use in your system, contact us.

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