We have all seen them. They are most commonly associated with the enormous stacks that identify nuclear power plants. But the truth is that cooling towers are everywhere, coming in a variety of shapes and sizes for numerous industries. This article will focus on how cooling towers operate and where one would find them across world industry.
Cooling towers serve to remove byproduct heat from industrial facilities and push it out into the atmosphere. Most plants use heat widely in their operations (or their processes create heat as waste, in accordance with the laws of physics) and this heat must be removed – nobody wants to work in a factory that routinely gets up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Cooling towers typically either push this heat directly into their air or use water to initially start the cooling then allow the steam to jet through the towers. The method used is determined primarily by the nature of the facility.
These towers may be most commonly associated with the large smokestacks of big factories, power plants, or refineries, but they actually appear in a variety of shapes and sizes. They are defined more by functionality than by construction – meaning that they can range anywhere from a small vent at the top of a one room building to the massive structures associated with the aforementioned nuclear power. The latter of which are referred to as hyperboloid structures, and have been built to be as large as almost 700 feet tall and over 300 feet wide. The largest of these is present at the Niederassum Power Plant in Germany.
These serve a vital role in any industry as heat is an ever present issue at most processing facilities. This may be intended (such as melting down metals or burning fuel to run facilities) or as a byproduct of regular operations (machinery heating as it creates or refines products). This is not significantly different from the heat that is given off by your desktop or laptop computer as you read this article, only on a much larger scale.
I will close this article by addressing the myth that these towers are pollutive. While the towers are absolutely used by many companies that pollute our earth, it would be unfair to associate cooling towers directly with pollution. While many facilities do jet out harmful and polluted waste products via large smoke stacks that can hurt air quality and possibly even contribute to global warming (depending on one’s political beliefs on that issue), the concept of a cooling tower is based solely on removing heat. As a general rule, steam jetted into the atmosphere is not harmful to the environment. It quickly cools to normal temperature as disperses and simply rejoins the water cycle. If other harmful byproducts are incorporated or survive into the cooling process and make their way into the atmosphere via the cooling tower, this falls on the company doing the cooling, not on the technology behind the cooling tower itself. It is important to understand that the presence of a cooling tower is not equivalent to poor air quality, that lies primarily in what industry the facility participates in and how it goes about its own operations.