What Is An Absorption Chiller and How Does It Work?
Absorption chillers use heat instead of mechanical energy to provide cooling. A thermal compressor consists of an absorber, a generator, a pump, and a throttling device, and replaces the mechanical vapor compressor.
In the chiller, refrigerant vapor from the evaporator is absorbed by a solution mixture in the absorber. This solution is then pumped to the generator. There the refrigerant re-vaporizes using a waste steam heat source. The refrigerant-depleted solution then returns to the absorber via a throttling device. The two most common refrigerant/ absorbent mixtures used in absorption chillers are water/lithium bromide and ammonia/water.
Compared with mechanical chillers, absorption chillers have a low coefficient of performance (COP = chiller load/heat input). However, absorption chillers can substantially reduce operating costs because they are powered by low-grade waste heat. Vapor compression chillers, by contrast, must be motor- or engine-driven.
Low-pressure, steam-driven absorption chillers are available in capacities ranging from 100 to 1,500 tons. Absorption chillers come in two commercially available designs: single-effect and double-effect. Single-effect machines provide a thermal COP of 0.7 and require about 18 pounds of 15-pound-per-square-inch-gauge (psig) steam per ton-hour of cooling. Double-effect machines are about 40% more efficient, but require a higher grade of thermal input, using about 10 pounds of 100- to 150-psig steam per ton-hour.
A single-effect absorption machine means all condensing heat cools and condenses in the condenser. From there it is released to the cooling water. A double-effect machine adopts a higher heat efficiency of condensation and divides the generator into a high-temperature and a low-temperature generator.
Is an Absorption Chiller or a Geothermal Heat Pump the Best Choice for You?
bsorption cooling may be worth considering if your site requires cooling, and if at least one of the following applies:
You have a combined heat and power CHP) unit and cannot use all of the available heat, or if you are considering a new CHP plant
- Waste heat is available
- A low-cost source of fuels is available
- Your boiler efficiency is low due to a poor load factor
- Your site has an electrical load limit that will be expensive to upgrade
Your site needs more cooling, but has an electrical load limitation that is expensive to overcome, and you have an adequate supply of heat.
In short, absorption cooling may fit when a source of free or low-cost heat is available, or if objections exist to using conventional refrigeration. Essentially, the low-cost heat source displaces higher-cost electricity in a conventional chiller.
In a plant where low-pressure steam is currently being vented to the atmosphere, a mechanical chiller with a COP of 4.0 is used 4,000 hours a year to produce an average 300 tons of refrigeration. The plant’s cost of electricity is $0.05 a kilowatt-hour.
An absorption unit requiring 5,400 lbs/hr of 15-psig steam could replace the mechanical chiller, providing annual electrical cost savings of:
Annual Savings = 300 tons x (12,000 Btu/ton / 4.0) x 4,000 hrs/yr x $0.05/kWh x kWh/3,413 Btu = $52,740
Actions You Can Take
Determine the cost-effectiveness of displacing a portion of your cooling load with a waste steam absorption chiller by taking the following steps:
- Conduct a plant survey to identify sources and availability of waste steam
- Determine cooling load requirements and the cost of meeting those requirements with existing mechanical chillers or new installations
- Obtain installed cost quotes for a waste steam absorption chiller
- Conduct a life cycle cost analysis to determine if the waste steam absorption chiller meets your company’s cost-effectiveness criteria.
Absorption Chiller Refrigeration Cycle
The basic cooling cycle is the same for the absorption and electric chillers. Both systems use a low-temperature liquid refrigerant that absorbs heat from the water to be cooled and converts to a vapor phase (in the evaporator section). The refrigerant vapors are then compressed to a higher pressure (by a compressor or a generator), converted back into a liquid by rejecting heat to the external surroundings (in the condenser section), and then expanded to a low- pressure mixture of liquid and vapor (in the expander section) that goes back to the evaporator section and the cycle is repeated.
The basic difference between the electric chillers and absorption chillers is that an electric chiller uses an electric motor for operating a compressor used for raising the pressure of refrigerant vapors and an absorption chiller uses heat for compressing refrigerant vapors to a high-pressure. The rejected heat from the power-generation equipment (e.g. turbines, micro turbines, and engines) may be used with an absorption chiller to provide the cooling in a CHP system.
The basic absorption cycle employs two fluids, the absorbate or refrigerant, and the absorbent. The most commonly fluids are water as the refrigerant and lithium bromide as the absorbent. These fluids are separated and recombined in the absorption cycle. In the absorption cycle the low-pressure refrigerant vapor is absorbed into the absorbent releasing a large amount of heat. The liquid refrigerant/absorbent solution is pumped to a high-operating pressure generator using significantly less electricity than that for compressing the refrigerant for an electric chiller. Heat is added at the high-pressure generator from a gas burner, steam, hot water or hot gases. The added heat causes the refrigerant to desorbs from the absorbent and vaporize. The vapors flow to a condenser, where heat is rejected and condense to a high-pressure liquid. The liquid is then throttled though an expansion valve to the lower pressure in the evaporator where it evaporates by absorbing heat and provides useful cooling. The remaining liquid absorbent, in the generator passes through a valve, where its pressure is reduced, and then is recombined with the low-pressure refrigerant vapors returning from the evaporator so the cycle can be repeated.
Absorption chillers are used to generate cold water (44°F) that is circulated to air handlers in the distribution system for air conditioning.
“Indirect-fired” absorption chillers use steam, hot water or hot gases steam from a boiler, turbine or engine generator, or fuel cell as their primary power input. Theses chillers can be well suited for integration into a CHP system for buildings by utilizing the rejected heat from the electric generation process, thereby providing high operating efficiencies through use of otherwise wasted energy.
“Direct-fired” systems contain natural gas burners; rejected heat from these chillers can be used to regenerate desiccant dehumidifiers or provide hot water.
Commercially absorption chillers can be single-effect or multiple-effect. The above schematic refers to a single-effect absorption chiller. Multiple-effect absorption chillers are more efficient and discussed below.
Multiple-Effect Absorption Chillers
In a single-effect absorption chiller, the heat released during the chemical process of absorbing refrigerant vapor into the liquid stream, rich in absorbent, is rejected to the environment. In a multiple-effect absorption chiller, some of this energy is used as the driving force to generate more refrigerant vapor. The more vapor generated per unit of heat or fuel input, the greater the cooling capacity and the higher the overall operating efficiency.
A double-effect chiller uses two generators paired with a single condenser, absorber, and evaporator. It requires a higher temperature heat input to operate and therefore they are limited in the type of electrical generation equipment they can be paired with when used in a CHP System.
Triple-effect chillers can achieve even higher efficiencies than the double-effect chillers. These chillers require still higher elevated operating temperatures that can limit choices in materials and refrigerant/absorbent pairs. Triple-effect chillers are under development by manufacturers working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Energy.
How Does an Engine Driven Chiller Work?
Packaged natural gas engine-driven water chillers and direct expansion (DX) units are now available. Commercially proven custom and packaged engine-driven refrigeration units offer excellent reliability and economic advantages for ice rinks, refrigerated warehouses and other applications. The industry is also focusing on developing small, engine-driven heating and cooling systems suitable for small commercial applications.
Operation: Engine-driven cooling systems employ a conventional vapor compression cycle. Their main components are the compressor, condenser, expansion valve and evaporator.
Advantages: The main difference between a natural gas and conventional electric system is the replacement of the electric motor with a gas engine. This change results in variable-speed operation capability; higher part-load efficiency; efficient high-temperature waste-heat recovery for water heating, process heating, or steam generation; and an overall reduction in operating expenses.
- Requires no more room than conventional electric chillers
- Lowest operating cost of any available chiller
- Depending on electric rates and natural gas rates, an engine driven chiller may operate at up to 1/2 of the cost of direct-fired absorption chillers
- Like absorption chillers, engine driven chillers reduce on-peak electric demand charges.
- Depending on your electric and/or natural gas supplier, there may be rebates available for purchasing a new absorption chiller or engine driven chiller from your utility supplier.
- Environmentally friendly.