Bifurcation Of Air – The Wonders of Science That Is The Vortex Tube

EXAIR has provided the benefits of vortex tube technology to the industrial world since 1983. Prior to that, French scientist George Ranque wrote about his discovery in 1928 calling it the tube tourbillion. But it wasn’t until German physicist Rudolf Hilsch’s research paper in 1945 on the wirbelrorhr or whirling tube, that the vortex tube entered the minds of commercial engineers. Nearly 60 years later, EXAIR is a leading provider for cooling products utilizing vortex tube technology.

More than 2,000 BTU/hr in the palm of your hand!

EXAIR Vortex Tubes produce a cold air stream down to -50° F and are a low cost, reliable, maintenance-free (there are no moving parts!) solution to a variety of spot cooling applications. These applications span a wide variety of industries and include cooling of electronic controls, soldered parts, machining operations, heat seals, environmental chambers, and gas samples. We’re always finding compelling new cooling opportunities for the vortex tubes.

How a Vortex Tube Works

So how does it produce the cooling stream? Compressed air is plumbed into the side port of the Vortex Tube where it is ejected tangentially into the internal chamber where the generator is located. The air begins flowing around the generator and spinning up to 1 million RPM toward the hot end (right side in the animation above) of the tube, where some hot air escapes through a control valve. Still spinning, the remaining air is forced back through the middle of the outer vortex. Through a process of conservation of angular momentum, the inner stream loses some kinetic energy in the form of HEAT to the outer stream and exits the vortex tube as COLD air on the other side.

The adjustable control valve adjusts what’s known as the cold fraction. Opening the valve reduces the cold air temperature and also the cold airflow volume. One can achieve the maximum refrigeration (an optimum combination of temperature and volume of flow) around an 80% cold fraction. EXAIR publishes performance charts in our catalog and online to help you dial into the right setting for your application, and you can always contact a real, live, Application Engineer to walk you through it.

EXAIR manufactures its vortex tubes of stainless steel for resistance to corrosion and oxidation. They come in small, medium and large sizes that consume from 2 to 150 SCFM and offer from 135 to 10,200 BTU/hr cooling capacity. Each size can generate several different flow rates, dictated by a small but key part called the generator. That generator can be changed out to increase or decrease the flow rate.

While operation and setup of an EXAIR Vortex Tube are easy, its performance will begin to  decrease with back pressure on the cold or hot air exhaust of over 3 PSIG. This is a key  when delivering the cold or hot airflow through tubes or pipes. They must be sized to minimize or eliminate back pressure.

The Vortex Tube is integrated into a variety of EXAIR products for specific applications, like the Adjustable Spot Cooler, the Mini Cooler, the Cold Gun Aircoolant System and our family of Cabinet Cooler Systems.

If you would like to discuss your next cooling application, please contact an Application Engineer directly and let our team lead you to the most efficient solution on the market.

Brian Farno
Application Engineer
BrianFarno@EXAIR.com
@EXAIR_BF

Cooling With Compressed Air: Air Knife vs. Vortex Tube Products

One of the popular applications for the EXAIR Super Air Knife is cooling. When mounted so that the air flow sweeps across the surface of a product, the laminar nature of the air flow works to maximize the contact time with the surface, which also maximizes the heat transfer…which means better product cooling than, say the turbulent air flow from a fan or blower.

Still, it’s common for us to get questions about how to provide even faster cooling.  Well, the two main variables in heat transfer are the time the air is in contact with the product, and the difference in temperature between the product surface and the air.

We’ve already touched on “time in contact”…sweeping the laminar flow across the surface at as low of an angle as you can, against the direction of travel, is ideal.  Combine that with the extraordinarily high air flow due to the entrainment level of the Super Air Knife, and you get an awful lot of air in contact with the surface, for a (relatively) long time.

Super Air Knives cool steel casting from 1,725°F (940°C) to 200°F (93°C) in under 20 minutes.

The difference in temperature, though, is a little trickier to deal with.  Because the developed flow from the Super Air Knife is mostly entrained ambient temperature air from the surrounding environment, you’re at the mercy of that ambient temperature.  One of the most common question – of the common questions about faster cooling – is, can you feed a Super Air Knife with cold air from a Vortex Tube?  The answer is no, for two big reasons:

  • The Vortex Tube’s cold flow can’t be back pressured, which would happen if you fed it through the plenum of a Super Air Knife and tried to make it come out the 0.002″ gap.
  • Even if it did work, the entrained air which, remember, makes up most of the flow, is still room temperature…meaning the total developed flow is a lot closer to room temperature than however cold the air you fed the Super Air Knife would be.

If the surface area to be blown on, to effect the desired cooling, is suitably sized, a Vortex Tube can be installed at a low angle to sweep its flow across.  The cold air flow from a Vortex Tube can also be distributed to more than one point, to cover more surface area.  That’s exactly what we do with our Dual Point Hose Kits for our Adjustable Spot Coolers, Mini Coolers, and Cold Gun Aircoolant Systems:

Dual Point Hose Kits can distribute air to both sides of a part, or onto a wider surface, than a single point discharge.

In fact, both the Single and Dual Point Hose Kits have a variety of tips they can be fitted with for tighter, or broader, flow patterns:

In some cases, multiple Vortex Tube products can be used, and, in other situations, the cold air can be directed through a manifold of some sort:

There are numerous methods to distribute the cold air flow from a lone, or a series of, Vortex Tubes.

Applications like the two on the right above (setting molten chocolate in molds, and keeping those white plastic parts during ultrasonic welding, respectively,) commonly start out as Air Knife inquiries, but the need for refrigerated air leads to creative Vortex Tube solutions.

If you’d like to discuss whether your application is best served by a Super Air Knife or a Vortex Tube Spot Cooling Product, give me a call.

Russ Bowman
Application Engineer
EXAIR Corporation
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Discovery of The Vortex Tube

There are many theories regarding the dynamics of a vortex tube and how it works. Many students have studied them in hopes of advancing the physics or as part of their undergrad studies. The man that started it all was not intentionally researching it, however.

The Vortex Tube was invented by accident in 1928, by George Ranque, a French physics student. He was performing experiments on a vortex-type pump that he had developed and noticed that warm air exhausted from one end and cold air from the other. Ranque quickly changed his focus from the pump to start a company taking advantage of the commercial possibilities for this odd little device that produced both hot and cold air, using only compressed air, with no moving parts. The company was not successful, and the vortex tube was forgotten until 1945 when Rudolph Hilsch, a German physicist, published a widely read paper on the device.

A vortex tube uses compressed air as a power source, has no moving parts, and produces hot air from one end and cold air from the other. The volume and temperature of the two air streams is adjustable with a valve built into the hot air exhaust.  Temperatures as low as -50°F (-46°C) and as high as 260°F (127°C) are possible.

Compressed air is supplied to a vortex tube and passes through nozzles that are tangent to an internal counterbore. As the air passes through it is set into a spiraling vortex motion at up to 1,000,000 rpm. The spinning stream of air flows down the hot tube in the form of a spinning shell, like a tornado (in red). The control valve at the end allows some of the warmed air to escape and what does not escape reverses direction and heads back down the tube as a second vortex (in blue) inside of the low-pressure area of the larger warm air vortex. The inner vortex loses heat and exits through the other end of as cold air.

It is thought that both the hot and cold air streams rotate in the same direction at the same angular velocity, even though they are traveling in opposite directions. A particle of air in the inner stream completes one rotation in the same time of an air particle in the outer stream. The principle of conservation of angular momentum would say that the rotational speed of the inner vortex should increase because the angular momentum of a rotating particle (L) is equal to the radius of rotation (r) times it’s mass (m) times its velocity (v).  L = r•m•v.  When an air particle moves from the outer stream to the inner stream, both its radius (r) and velocity (v) decrease, resulting in a lower angular momentum. To maintain an energy balance for the system, the energy that is lost from the inner stream is taken in by the outer stream as heat. Therefore, the outer vortex becomes warm and the inner vortex is cooled.

At EXAIR, we have harnessed the cooling power of the vortex tube, and it can be found and utilized in such products as Spot CoolersCabinet Coolers, and Vortex Tubes themselves. If you have questions about Vortex Tubes, or would like to talk about any of the EXAIR Intelligent Compressed Air® Products, feel free to contact us.

Brian Farno
Application Engineer
BrianFarno@EXAIR.com
@EXAIR_BF

 

Max Refrigeration vs. Max Cold Temp Vortex Tubes

Here at EXAIR, our vortex tubes are offered in two separate series. The reason for this is to optimize the performance of the cold air temperature drop when operating with opposite ends of the cold fraction chart. The maximum refrigeration vortex tubes, 32xx series, perform optimally when they are set to a greater than 50% cold fraction.  The maximum cold temp vortex tubes, 34xx series, perform optimally when they are set to a less than or equal to 50% cold fraction. The cold fraction is discussed more in-depth within this link from Russ Bowman, Vortex Tube Cold Fractions Explained. This blog is going to explain a little further why one series of vortex tubes would be chosen for an application over another.

Cold Fraction
EXAIR Vortex Tube Performance Chart

Maximum refrigeration (32xx) vortex tubes are the most commonly discussed of the two types when discussing the optimal selection of the vortex tube for an application. The 32xx series vortex tubes achieve a maximum refrigeration output when operated at 100 psig inlet pressure with around  80% cold fraction. This would give a temperature drop from incoming compressed air temperature of 54°F (30°C). The volumetric flow rate of cold air will be 80% of the input flow which means only 20% is being exhausted as warm exhaust air. By keeping the flow rate higher the air is able to cool a higher heat load and is the reason the vortex tube is given a BTU/hr cooling capacity.

Vortex Tube Hot Valve Adjustment

Maximum cold temperature (34xx) tubes are less common as their applications are a little more niche and require a very pinpoint application. Rather than changing the temperature inside of a cooling tunnel or cooling an ultrasonic welding horn, the max cold temp vortex tube is going to have a minimum cold flow rate, less than 50% of input volumetric flow.  This minimal flow will be at temperature drops up to 129°F (71.1°C) from the incoming compressed air temperature.  This air is very cold and at a low flow. A 20% cold fraction exhausts 80% of the input volume as hot air. This type of volume would be ideal for sensor cooling, pinpoint cooling of a slow-moving operation, or thermal testing of small parts.

In the end, EXAIR vortex tubes perform their task of providing cold or hot air without using any refrigerants or moving parts. To learn more about how they work, check out this blog from Russ Bowman. If you want to see how to change the cold fraction, check out the video below. If you would like to discuss anything compressed air related, contact an application engineer, we are always here to help.

Brian Farno
Application Engineer
BrianFarno@EXAIR.com
@EXAIR_BF