Aluminum cold plates and plate-fin heat exchangers commonly are used because of their light weight and high performance, but special care must be taken to avoid corrosion.

Because of their light weight and high performance, aluminum cold plates and plate-fin heat exchangers commonly are used for liquid cooling. There are many factors to consider when designing these cold plates and heat exchangers, including:
  • Thermal performance.
  • Size.
  • Fluid pressure drop.
  • Weight.
  • Burst pressure.
  • Corrosion resistance.
Because corrosion is a common problem, a focus on corrosion resistance during the design, build and operation of aluminum cold plates and plate-fin heat exchangers should be a priority.

Corrosion of Aluminum

Aluminum is known for its corrosion resistance. Under the right conditions, aluminum rapidly forms a protective oxide layer. Generally, this occurs when oxygen is readily available and the surrounding medium has a moderate pH.

There are two typical manifestations of aluminum corrosion: uniform corrosion and local corrosion. Uniform corrosion happens when the oxide layer is soluble in the corrosive medium. According to the ASM Metals Handbook, “The oxide film is soluble in alkaline solutions and in strong acids…but is stable over a pH range of approximately 4.0 to 9.0.” With uniform corrosion, the entire oxide layer is stripped away faster than it can re-form.

Local corrosion, usually in the form of a pit, occurs when there is non-uniformity in the base metal or the surrounding environment. For instance, the metal may have a local concentration of alloying elements that creates a galvanic couple. Similarly, the surrounding environment may have a local concentration of active elements such as chlorides.

Cold plates and heat exchangers are used with many different fluids and typically involve the recirculation of the same fluid. One fluid that should not be used in aluminum cold plates and heat exchangers is water. Tap water, in particular, can contain active ions such as copper, bicarbonates, chlorides and other impurities that facilitate corrosion. In addition, over time, the recirculation of the same fluid in a closed loop will cause the dissolved oxygen to come out of solution. The resulting lack of oxygen will inhibit the formation of the oxide layer. Given enough time, aluminum will eventually corrode if isolated from oxygen and exposed to low-quality water. When water is the preferred choice for a heat transfer system, distilled water usually is combined with a glycol to reduce the freezing point and increase the boiling point.

For the reasons already noted, it is critical that corrosion inhibitors be used. Corrosion inhibitors are controlled amounts of active ions (usually phosphates) that take over the role of oxygen in forming a corrosion-resistant layer. Because these inhibitors depend on a chemical reaction with the aluminum, using low-quality water such as tap water would reduce the inhibitors’ effectiveness.

Proper design can help reduce the chances of corrosion occurring within an aluminum cold plate and plate-fin heat exchangers.

The Importance of Design

For the best corrosion resistance, good design is top priority. In addition, alloy selection is a key factor in ensuring good corrosion resistance. For example, braze sheets, which separate the fluid passages in plate-fin heat exchangers, consist of an internal core and external clad layer that usually represents about 10 percent of the overall sheet thickness. The clad layer is a brazing alloy that joins the braze sheet to both the hot and cold fins and the braze sheet to the side bars. Vacuum brazing alloys use silicone and other elements to lower the melting point of the alloy. Because the braze alloy is more anodic than the core, the braze alloy provides cathodic protection and, thus, corrosion protection.

Cathodic protection is a concept that has been used in the ship-building industry for decades. For hulls made of steel, a plug made of an active element like zinc is used to protect the hull. Because zinc is more active than steel, the zinc corrodes faster than the steel. Among the alloying elements of aluminum, the alloys with a minimum of copper and iron have the best corrosion resistance.

Other considerations in cold plate and heat exchanger design also contribute to reducing corrosion. For instance, internal fluid static pressure and external stresses put the core components under stress. These stresses often require that high strength alloys be used for the braze sheets or fins. Selecting the braze sheet thickness requires trade-offs among performance, weight and corrosion protection. A thick braze sheet has less strength to withstand stresses and offers less corrosion protection. Yet if a corrosive environment is present, thin braze sheets will withstand an attack for less time than a thicker sheet.

Cold plates and heat exchangers are used with many fluids. Recirculating a volume of fluid can lead to corrosion over time unless it is accounted for in the system design.

Heat Exchanger Operation

When operating a water/glycol cold plate or heat exchanger, it is important to have a maintenance plan. The typical maintenance activity is flushing and refilling the system with the proper mixture of inhibited ethylene glycol and water. This should be done on a periodic basis at an interval determined through system level testing during the operation evaluation phase.

Periodically, the fluid pH and refractive index should be measured. These measurements will change over time. From these measurements, a flushing frequency should be determined.

During deployment, it is common for systems to be “topped off.” This practice should not harm the cold plate or heat exchanger as long as the glycol concentration is not diluted to the point of making the inhibitor ineffective. Inhibitor ineffectiveness is a function of top-off water quality, other metal types in the fluid loop and the age of the inhibitor in the system. If topping off is employed, it is advisable to monitor the pH of the fluid. If the pH falls below 4.0 or rises above 9 in a system, flush/fill should take place as soon as possible.

Corrosion resistance begins with cold plate or heat exchanger design. By working with a manufacturer that understands corrosion and how to prevent it, you will achieve a better product. It also is important to develop maintenance procedures that will maximize the life of the aluminum cold plate or heat exchanger.