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Your car's engine produces a lot of heat. After all, the engine works by initiating a series of controlled explosions that drive the pistons up and down, thereby turning the crankshaft. All those little explosions cause a lot of heat. To cool the engine down to an acceptable temperature, water is pumped through cavities around the engine block. But the water also gets hot, so the water has to be cooled down too.
That's where the radiator comes in. It works as a kind of heat exchanger. The cool water takes the heat away from the engine block. The water, now hot, is pumped through the radiator, which cools the water down again. The cooled water then starts the cycle again, being pumped back around the engine block to remove more heat.
In order to cool the water the radiator is of a special construction. Most modern radiators are made of aluminum. A series of flattened aluminum tubes arranged in a parallel way all have thin protruding fins, also made from aluminum, that serve to draw the heat away to dissipate in the air.
The water, or more correctly, the coolant, for it is usually mixed with an anti-freeze chemical, enters the radiator through the inlet pipe. It fills the many flattened pipes, and the heat that the coolant has acquired from the engine block is drawn off by the fins. The cooled coolant then leaves the radiator through outlet pipe, where all the outlets of all the flattened pipes eventually converge.
The system is a closed one running under pressure, and one that continuously recycles. In older cars, a fan would continuously operate, drawing outside air in to blow against the radiator fins, to help the cooling process. In most modern cars there is still a fan, but it usually doesn't operate continuously. This is because of the increased efficiency design of the modern radiator compared to the older counterparts.
Modern radiator fans are controlled by a thermostat that only cuts in when the temperature gets too hot. Most of the time the force of the wind moving past the radiator, because of the car's forward movement, is enough to keep the water at an acceptable temperature.
Of course, the term 'cool' as applied to the water that leaves the radiator, is a relative one. By most standards this water is quite hot at perhaps 80 degrees Celsius. Or at least, hot enough to burn your skin if you stuck your hand against it! But that is enough to keep the engine from overheating. Every engine has its best operating temperature, and that temperature is invariably quite hot. This is a temperature where the lubricating oil works at its most efficient.
Modern radiators have changed little since the earliest ones. Their job is comparatively simple; accept hot coolant, cool down the hot coolant, resulting in cool coolant, then release the cool coolant again. As the system is closed and under pressure, it is essential that there are no leaks in the radiator, or any of the rubber hoses at either end. A burst radiator, apart from making a big mess, invariably means that the car can't go on. The radiator, like so many other components of the car, is a very essential component indeed.