Timely cleaning of heat exchangers significantly reduces energy consumption

As fouling occurs in heat exchangers at Denmark’s combined district heating plants, their ability to transfer heat deteriorates. New research from DTU can be used to pinpoint the right time to remove fouling and thereby avoid large energy losses and unnecessary use of environmentally harmful chemicals for cleaning.

Model system used to conduct experiments that simulate flow conditions in pipes.
Model systems like these are used by researchers to make representative and reproducible experiments that simulate flow conditions in pipes so that fouling in the pipes can be observed. Photo: Christian Ove Carlsson
Illustration that shows how the thickness of buildup in pipes reduces efficiency.
Calculations show how much the efficiency of heat exchangers is affected at different levels of fouling. Source:

Different parameters affect crystal formation

The growth of crystals occurs at all interfaces between water and a solid surface. The crystals are formed by various chemical compounds.

Isaac Appelquist Løge’s research shows how the accumulation of the two most common crystals, namely lime and barite crystals, is affected by the speed at which the liquid flows, the texture of the surface over which the liquid passes, how the crystals accumulate over time, and the effect of the crystals’ concentration.

The study was conducted on liquid flowing through pipes. The growth of the crystals has been studied with CT scanners, among other things.

“Specifically, we saw that if the liquid flows more slowly through the pipes, the crystals grow in isolated clumps like single trees on a hill and end up breaking off and flowing with the current,” he explains.

“At faster speeds, on the other hand, they grow together in larger clumps like a dense forest and tend to stay in place for longer. The results go against the common belief that liquid flowing at higher speeds will have a force that causes the crystals to break off. In any case, we show that there is a tipping point that determines when the detachment of crystals has an impact on the accumulation.”

Figure that shows how fouling builds up on surface when liquid flows slow and fast respectively.
Crystal growth at low and high speed. At high speed, crystals detach much later, because they shield each other. Source: Løge et al., Chem. Eng. J., 430 (P2) (2021, DOI: 10.1016/j.cej.2021.132583)

This knowledge can be incorporated into production processes to adjust the rate of fluid flow and reduce crystal accumulation.

Based on this new insight into why and how quickly crystals accumulate, Isaac Appelquist Løge will create a model that can be used to plan the most appropriate cleaning schedule.

Valuable knowledge for many industries

Crystal accumulation poses a problem not only in heat exchangers but also in other industries that pump liquids through pipes, which include everything from the food industry, CO2 transport and storage, and geothermal energy to the oil and gas industry.

“If the diameter of the pipes becomes smaller as crystals accumulate in the pipes, you need more energy to force the same amount of liquid through,” explains Isaac Appelquist Løge.

The pipes must therefore be cleaned before the pressure loss becomes too great, but not unnecessarily often, as cleaning is expensive. On an oil rig, the challenge is particularly great, as production must be stopped in the meantime, and manpower and materials must be transported offshore.

The new knowledge can also be used in these industries to calculate the optimal cleaning routines.


Europe is in an energy crisis. Gas and electricity shortages have put the spotlight on how we can reduce our energy consumption and develop new technologies that can help to provide us with safe, effective energy supplies in future.

Read more about this in DTU’s energy topic—security of supply and efficiency.