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Tools & Technical Reference


Lightweight Titanium Heat Exchangers for Airborne Applications

 Heat exchanger core designFig. 1. Design of heat exchanger core

In most aircraft cabin environmental control systems, bleed-air is cooled via a lightweight plate-fin heat exchanger using ram-air as the coolant. The high temperatures of the hot bleed-air precludes construction from lightweight aluminum alloys, as they are generally only suitable for use up to approximately 400°F (204°C); stainless steel or nickel alloys (e.g. Inconel®) are generally the material of choice. Titanium heat exchangers offer a much higher performance to weight ratio than either of these materials. They can be operated at high temperatures and are easily tailored to a given envelope.

Lytron, in conjunction with Materials Resources International (MRi), and with SBIR funding1, has designed, developed, tested, and proven the manufacturing concepts for a titanium plate fin heat exchanger. It offers similar performance to stainless steel or nickel alloy heat exchangers at 30-50% less weight.

Design Specifications

High performance, small size, and low weight are critical requirements for any airborne heat exchanger. For bleed-air cooling, the heat exchanger must additionally maintain its integrity at elevated temperatures as the hot bleed air is typically in the 600°F-1000°F (316°C-538°C) range. It must also withstand the potentially high pressures (several hundred psi) on the bleed-air side of the exchanger without distortion, leakage, or failure.

 Wavy titanium finFig. 2. Wavy titanium fin

Heat Exchanger Design

Lytron designed the heat exchanger based on the stringent performance, dimensional, and weight specifications required for a typical bleed air engine application.

The plate fin design consists of folded fin layered in alternate directions, with side rails to complete the loop (Fig. 1). Wavy fin was selected as it has good thermal transfer properties, and is practical to manufacture from titanium. Alternatives such as lanced offset fin are difficult to make due to the material properties of the titanium. The geometric dimensions meet the envelope specifications and the number of passes was designed for optimal heat transfer.

Heat exchanger titanium core Fig. 3. Titanium heat exchanger
core showing close-up of fin

Development of Manufacturing Concepts

Lytron investigated a variety of titanium alloys. C.P. Ti Grade 4 was selected for the fin stock and tube plate. This is a commercially pure titanium alloy with high tensile and yield strengths. Wavy fin was manufactured at Lytron using a Robinson fin machine with a custom fin-folding die (Fig. 2).

Braze fillers of various material compositions and forms (pastes, foils, and powders) were evaluated. A pre-alloyed titanium powder developed by MRi provided the highest quality braze joints. Several methods of application were tested and a suspension spray method yielded the most even coverage.

The heat exchanger cores produced using spray-applied titanium alloy braze material showed excellent joining at all observable edges and internal fin-plate joints, and there was no plugging of passages (Fig. 3.) Tensile pull, lap shear, and burst tests demonstrated good consistency in braze strengths. Metallographic cross sections of the various fin-plate joints showed that the structure of the braze joint was sound with no voiding (Fig. 4). As with all plate-fin heat exchangers, well designed braze fixtures are critical to ensuring high quality brazed joints and good yields from the vacuum brazing process.

Lytron experimented with various header designs and methods of attachment. The best results were achieved with a header that was directly welded in a glove box.

Microphotographs of cut EDMFig. 4. Microphotographs of cut (EDM) core made with folded-wavy Grade 4
titanium fin braze joined to tube sheet with a Ti alloy
Titanium heat exchanger Fig. 5. Titanium heat exchanger

Testing and Validation

Thermal Performance

Lytron built several titanium plate-fin heat exchangers (Fig. 5) and tested them over a range of conditions. These results were compared to the thermal model to verify its accuracy. For ease of laboratory testing, the bleed air heat exchanger was tested as a water/air heat exchanger (water on the hot side) rather than an air/air heat exchanger. Measured results were compared to predicted results (Fig. 6). These results validated the predicted performance for a range of Reynold's numbers. They also enabled the difference between measured and calculated values to be quantified and the theoretical model further refined.

Comparison of actual to predicted heat exchanger thermal performance graphFig. 6. Comparison of actual to predicted heat exchanger thermal performance with air flow rate.
Water flow rate = 6.0 gpm (performance was also measured at 4gpm and 8 gpm)*

Based on these results, it is predicted that the heat exchanger meets or exceeds the original design specification at the elevated temperatures and pressures that would be found in a typical bleed-air to ram-air heat exchanger application.

Pressure Drop Performance

Air side pressure drop  versus air flow rate graphFig. 7. Air side Pressure Drop

Pressure Testing

All samples held a proof pressure of 800 PSI. One was tested to burst pressure. It burst at 1500 PSI where it leaked along the seam between the header and the bar.

Size and Weight

The heat exchanger weighs just 2 lbs. 14½ ounces and measures 7.5" x 3" x 2.125" including headers.


Lytron has designed and built prototype titanium heat exchangers for bleed-air to ram-air cooling. These demonstrated excellent correlation to predicted results in laboratory scale performance tests and are predicted to meet or exceed the performance specifications to which they were designed. The heat exchangers also passed all laboratory reliability tests including tensile testing, pressure testing, and burst testing.

Information contained herein is subject to SBIR Data Rights per Contract F33615-03-C-5300.

1SBIR AFRL Contract # F33615-03-C-5300