Vortex Tube Cold Fractions – An Explanation

Vortex Tube Family

At EXAIR we’ve been a pioneer in the compressed air market for the past 34 years.  We’ve brought engineered nozzles to the market which reduce compressed air consumption while maintaining performance, laminar flow Air Knives, pneumatic conveyors, atomizing nozzles, air-assisted static eliminators, and a slew of other products.  One of these “other” products is our Vortex Tube, which we manufacture in various sizes while also using as a basis for our Cold Guns, Adjustable Spot Coolers, Mini Coolers, and Cabinet Coolers – all of which are built on the same Vortex Tube technology.

Theory of operation for an EXAIR Vortex Tube

The principle behind a Vortex Tube is rooted in the Ranque-Hilsch effect which takes place inside of the tube.  As a compressed air source is fed into the Vortex Tube, the air flows through a generator and begins to spin down the length of the tube, “hugging” the ID of the tube.  When this spinning air contacts a deliberate obstruction at the end of the tube, it is forced to reverse directions, which requires a change in diameter to the vortex.  The original vortex must decrease in diameter, and in order to do so, it must give off energy.  This energy is shed in the form of heat, and a portion of the incoming air is directed out of the tube with a drastically reduced temperature via what is called the “cold end”.  Another portion of the air escapes through the “hot end” of the tube, resulting in a cold airflow at one end, and a hot airflow at the other end of the tube.

Small, but powerful, Vortex Tubes really are a marvel of engineering.  And, like most useful developments in engineering, Vortex Tube technology begs the question “How can we control and use this phenomena?”  And, “What are the effects of changing the amount of air which escapes via the cold end and the hot end of the tube?”

EXAIR Vortex Tube Performance Chart

These answers are found in the understanding of what is called a cold fraction.  A cold fraction is the percentage of incoming air which will exhaust through the cold end of the Vortex Tube.  If the cold fraction is 80%, we will see 80% of the incoming airflow exhaust via the cold end of the tube.  The remaining airflow (20%) will exhaust via the hot end of the tube.

For example, setting a model 3210 Vortex Tube (which has a compressed air flow of 10 SCFM @ 100 PSIG) to an 80% cold fraction will result in 8 SCFM of air exhausting via the cold end, and 2 SCFM of air exhausting through the hot end of the Vortex Tube.  If we change this cold fraction to 60%, 6 SCFM will exhaust through the cold end and 4 SCFM will exhaust through the hot end.

But what does this mean?

Essentially, this means that we can vary the flow, and temperature, of the air from the cold end of the Vortex Tube.  The chart above shows temperature drop and rise, relative to the incoming compressed air temperature.  As we decrease the cold fraction, we decrease the volume of air which exhausts via the cold end of the Vortex Tube.  But, we also further decrease the outlet temperature.

This translates to an ability to provide extremely low temperature air.  And the lower the temperature, the lower the flow.

Red box shows the temperature drop in degrees F when an EXAIR Vortex Tube is operated at 100 PSIG with an 80% cold fraction.

With this in mind, the best use of a Vortex Tube is with a setup that produces a low outlet temperature with good cold air volume.  Our calculations, testing, and years of experience have found that a cold fraction of ~80% can easily provide the best of both worlds.  Operating at 100 PSIG, we will see a temperature drop of 54°F, with 80% of the incoming air exiting the tube on the cold end (see red circle in chart above).  For a compressed air supply with a temperature of 74°F-84°F (common compressed air temperatures), we will produce an output flow with a temperature between 20°F and 30°F – freezing cold air!

With a high volume and low temperature air available at an 80% cold fraction, most applications are well suited for this type of setup.  When you order a Vortex Tube from EXAIR we will ship it preset to ~80% cold fraction, allowing you to immediately install it right of the box.

The cold air from an EXAIR Vortex Tube is effective to easily spot cool a variety of components from PCB soldering joints to CNC mills, and even complete electrical control panels.  Contact an Application Engineer with application specific questions or to further discuss cold fractions.

Lee Evans
Application Engineer

EXAIR Vortex Tubes: As Much Cold Air As You Need, As Cold As You Need It

If you’re looking for a reliable, consistent flow of cold air, there’s really no better way to produce it than with a Vortex Tube. There are no moving parts…the air flow and temperature from a particular model, set to a specific cold fraction, is only influenced by the compressed air supply pressure & temperature.

Pressure is easy to control…all you need is a suitable regulator.  Temperature CAN be a variable, depending on your type of compressor, if you have a dryer system (and what type it is,) and sometimes, ambient conditions…if, for example, a long pipe is run through a very hot environment like a foundry or a blast furnace operation.  In cases where supply pressure and/or temperature can be limitations, a higher capacity Vortex Tube, set to a lower Cold Fraction, may be specified.  Which brings me to the user inquiry that inspired today’s blog…

This particular customer uses our Model 3215 Vortex Tubes (15 SCFM, 1,000 Btu/hr) to provide cooling to analyzer systems that monitor certain quality parameters in their manufacturing processes.  The ability to precisely control the temperature in these systems makes for repeatable and accurate measurement of these parameters.   Their compressed air supply in this area is regulated to 80psig, they have a refrigerant-type dryer and climate-controlled facility, so their supply temperature is a consistent 70°F.  You couldn’t ask for better conditions for a successful Vortex Tube application, and they’ve worked great, for years.

Now, due to a plant expansion, they’re installing some of these analyzer systems in a location where the compressed air supply is limited to 60psig.  The required cooling capacity is going to be the same, so the Project Manager reached out to us to see if they could get the same amount of cooling with this new pressure limitation.  Here’s how they’re doing it:

We publish the rated performance of Vortex Tube products for a supply pressure of 100psig.  The Model 3215 Vortex Tube consumes 15 SCFM @100psig and, when set to an 80% Cold Fraction (meaning 80%…or 12 SCFM…of the 15 SCFM supply is directed to the cold end,) the cold air will be 54F colder than the compressed air supply temperature.  Here’s the performance table, so you can follow along:

EXAIR Vortex Tube Performance Table

Now, their supply is at 80psig.  Since air consumption is directly proportional to absolute supply pressure (gauge pressure PLUS atmospheric, which is 14.7psi at sea level,) we can calculate their units’ consumption as follows:

(80psig + 14.7psia) ÷ (100psig + 14.7psia) = 0.83 X 15 SCFM (@100psig) = 12.4 SCFM (@80psig)

So, with a 50°F temperature drop (from a supply @70°F,) they were getting 12.4 SCFM of cold air at 20°F.

As you can see from the table above, they’ll only get a 46°F drop at 60psig…and the flow won’t be as high, either.  So…we’ll need to get more air through the Vortex Tube, right?  Let’s use a little math to solve for what we need.

We still need 20°F cold air from 70°F compressed air, so, at 60psig, we’re looking at a Cold Fraction of ~70%.  And we still need 12.4 SCFM, so:

12.4 SCFM ÷ 0.7 = 17.7 SCFM @60psig (required supply)

Our Model 3230 Vortex Tube uses 30 SCFM @10opsig…at 60psig it’ll consume:

(60psig + 14.7psia) ÷ (100psig + 14.7psia) = 0.65 X 30 SCFM (@100psig) = 19.5 SCFM (@60psig)

That’s about 10% more flow than they needed, theoretically, which was close enough to start.  From there, they “dialed in” performance by regulating the supply pressure and Cold Fraction (see video, below):

If you’d like to find out more, or work through a cooling application, give me a call.

Russ Bowman
Application Engineer
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Vortex Tube Cold Fractions

Vortex Tubes are the perfect solution when dealing with a variety of spot cooling applications. They use compressed air to produce a cold air stream and a hot air stream, with temperatures ranging from as low as -50°F  up to +260°F (based on ambient supply temperature) and providing as much as 10,200 Btu/hr. of cooling capacity. By simply adjusting the valve in the hot end of the Vortex Tube, you are able to control the “cold fraction” which is the percentage of air consumed by the vortex tube that is exhausted as cold air versus the amount of air exhausted as hot air. Our small, medium and large Vortex Tubes provide the same temperature drop and rise, it’s the volume of air that changes with the various sizes.

Vortex Tubes

Vortex Tubes are available in small, medium and large sizes with various flows and cooling capacities.

When looking at the below performance chart, you will see that “Pressure Supply” and “Cold Fraction %” setting all play a part in changing the performance of the Vortex Tubes. Take for example, an operating pressure of 100 PSIG and cold fraction setting of 20%, you will see a 123°F drop on the cold side versus a 26°F temperature rise on the hot side. By the using the same Vortex Tube and keeping the operating pressure at 100 PSIG but changing the cold fraction to 80%, you will now see a 54°F temperature drop on the cold side and a 191° rise at the hot end.

Vortex Tube Performance Data

Vortex Tube Performance Chart

We’ve looked at how the cold fraction changes the temperature, but how does it change the flow for the various Models?

Say you are using a Model # 3240 Medium Vortex Tube which consumes 40 SCFM @ 100 PSIG. Again with the cold fraction set at 80% (80% of the consumed compressed air out of the cold end), you would flow 32 SCFM at the cold air exhaust.

40 SCFM x 0.8 (80% CF) = 32 SCFM

Using the same Model # 3240 Medium Vortex Tube but now with a 20% cold fraction (20% of consumed compressed air out of the cold end), you would flow 8 SCFM at the cold exhaust.

40 SCFM x 0.20 (20% CF) = 8 SCFM

As you can see, to achieve the colder air temperatures, the volume of cold air being exhausted is reduced as well. This is important to consider when making a Model selection. Some other considerations would be the operating pressure which you can see also has a significant effect on performance. Also the compressed air supply temperature because the above temperatures are temperature differentials, so in the example of the 80% cold fraction there is a 115F temperature drop from your inlet compressed air temperature.

If you need additional assistance, you can always contact myself or another application engineer and we would be happy to make the best selection to fit your specific need.

Justin Nicholl
Application Engineer


The Effect of Back Pressure on a Vortex Tube

Vortex tubes have been considered a phenomena of Physics and boggled minds for many years.  To give a brief run down of how the Vortex Tube works please refer to Figure 1 below.


Figure 1

As seen above, the control valve is determining the amount of air allowed to escape the hot end and sets the cold fraction.  A cold fraction is the percentage of air that exits the cold side versus the hot side. The cold fraction and operating pressure sets the temperature drop on the cold end and temperature rise on the hot end, as well as volumetric flow out of both ends. The control valve is not the only variable that can alter the cold fraction of the Vortex Tube though.

In Figure 1 and the performance chart below, there is no restriction on the hot end or the cold end outlets. No restriction means no back pressure and the cold air has the easiest path to the area needing cooling. Back pressure can directly affect the performance of a Vortex Tube.  As little as 3 psig of back pressure can begin to alter the temperature drop or rise on the Vortex Tube.  This is due to the fact that Vortex Tubes operate off an absolute pressure differential.  If the outlets have a restriction on them then they are not discharging at atmospheric pressure, 14.7 psi. What kind of items can cause back pressure and can the performance with a back pressure on the outlet be determined?

Back pressure is created by implementing any form of restriction on the hot or cold outlet. This may be undersized tubing to deliver the cold air or a valve that has been installed to try and control the volume of air being blown onto the process as well as many other possibilities.  The best rule of thumb to eliminate back pressure is to keep the tubing on an outlet the same cross sectional dimension as the outlet on the Vortex Tube and try to keep the tubing as short as possible.

If back pressure cannot be prevented, the performance variance of the Vortex Tube can be calculated and possibly compensated for. The variables that are needed to do so are the inlet air pressure of the vortex tube and the amount of back pressure that is being seen on the outlets. If this is different from the hot end to the cold end both will need to be known.  If these are not known they can be measure by installing a pipe Tee and a pressure gauge. This may need to be a sensitive pressure gauge that measures even relatively low psig. (1-15 psig)

Once these variables are known, we want to look at an absolute pressure differential versus the back pressure differential. For example, the Vortex Tube is a operating at 100 psig inlet pressure, 50% cold fraction and 10 psi of back pressure.  We look at the pressure differentials and can use Algebraic method to determine the inlet pressure supply that the tube will actually perform at.

(100 psig + 14.7 psia) / (10 psig + 14.7 psia) = X / 14.7 psia
4.6437 = X / 14.7
X= 14.7 * 4.6437
X = 68.2628
(Values have been rounded for display purposes)

So if there is a 10 psig back pressure on the outlet of a Vortex tube operating a 100 psig inlet pressure the tube will actually carry performance as if the inlet pressure was ~68 psig.   To showcase the alteration in performance we will look at just the temperature drop out of the cold side of the Vortex Tube. (Keep in mind this is a drop from the incoming compressed air temperature.)

Vortex Tube Performance Data

Vortex Tube Performance Chart

As shown in the performance chart above, if the Vortex Tube was operating at 100 psig inlet pressure and 50% cold fraction the temperature drop would be 100°F.  By applying a 10 psi back pressure on the outlet of the Vortex Tube the temperature will be decreased to ~87°F temperature drop.   This will also decrease the volumetric flow of air exiting the Vortex Tube which can also be calculated in order to determine the cooling capacity of the Vortex Tube at the altered state.  Keep an eye out for a follow up blog coming soon to see that calculation.

Brian Farno
Application Engineer Manager

More on Vortex Tubes: Understanding Cold Fractions

vortex tube

An EXAIR Vortex Tube

I had a conversation today through our online chat feature with a customer in the Middle East who needed a bit more understanding about Vortex Tubes.  The cooling power and instantaneous ability of a Vortex Tube offers ways to remove heat from applications, but the way the Vortex Tube works was a little misunderstood.  So, we went over the basics.

A Vortex Tube transforms a compressed air supply into a stream of hot and cold air.  As the compressed air enters into the Vortex Tube, it passes through a generator which causes the air to spin.  The airstream spins down the length of the Vortex Tube until it reaches a “brake”, whereupon it changes directions and begins spinning inside of itself, giving off energy in the form of heat.  The result is a stream of cold air at one end of the Vortex Tube, and a stream of hot air at the other.

But how can we adjust the flows and temperatures?

Adjusting the flow and cold air temperature from a Vortex Tube is as simple as turning the adjustment valve at the hot end of the unit.  This valve controls the “cold fraction” of the Vortex Tube, or, to put it more simply, the amount of air which will exit the unit at the cold end.

EXAIR Vortex Tube Performance Chart

EXAIR Vortex Tube Performance Chart

For example, if we were to set a Vortex Tube to an 80% cold fraction, 80% of the air consumed by the Vortex Tube would exhaust through the cold end of the unit.  If we take the same Vortex Tube and establish a 60% cold fraction, 60% of the consumed air will exhaust through the cold end of the unit.

Why is this important?

The cold fraction is important because at various cold fractions we will product varying temperature drops, even at the same operating pressure.  So, in the example above, if we have a Vortex Tube operating at 7 BARG, set to an 80% cold fraction, we can expect a temperature drop of 30°C (54°F), relative to the temperature of the incoming compressed air.

This means that if our compressed air temperature is 25°C (77°F), we will have an outlet temperature of -5°C (23°F).  If we take the same air supply and reduce the cold fraction to 60%, we will have a temperature drop of 48°C (86°F).

The caveat here is that when we reduce the air temperature, we also reduce the flow.  So, the colder the air temperature from the Vortex Tube cold end, the lower the volume of cold air.

When determining if a Vortex Tube is right for an application, it is important to consider all the variables (operating pressure, compressed air temperature, cold fraction, required cooling) when making a model number selection.

If you have any questions or concerns when considering a Vortex Tube, contact an EXAIR Application Engineer.

Lee Evans
Application Engineer

Which Vortex Tube Do I Need?

Last week, I wrote a brief introduction to vortex tubes, titled One Item Generates ¼ Ton of Refrigeration and Fits in the Palm of your Hand.” In it I introduced the Vortex Tube and the other products made from Vortex Tubes: Cabinet Coolers, Cold Guns, Adjustable Spot Cooler and Mini Coolers. I also introduced the idea of a cold fraction.  Today, I want to talk about specific Vortex Tube models.

The flow from the cold side of the Vortex Tubeis characterized in two different ways. First, we characterize the air by ΔT (temperature drop) from the starting compressed air temperature. With a supply pressure of 100 PSIG, the drop in temperature can range from 54° to 123° Fahrenheit. Second, we characterize the flow of air in Standard Cubic Feet per Minute. The different models of vortex tube are design to provide a range of flows and temperature.

Vortex Tube Specification

Vortex Tube Specification Chart

When facing this list you have numerous choices that can be daunting. My priorities for selecting a Vortex Tube for a customer are twofold. First, you need the Vortex Tube that will work in your application. Second, I want to choose the model with the least amount of compressed air in order to solve their problem with the least amount of air possible. The smallest Vortex Tube is a model 3202. It also utilizes the least amount of compressed air, 2 SCFM. At 100 PSIG and an 80 percent cold fraction, it will produce a cold flow of 1.6 SCFM at 54° F  below your compressed air temperature. If your compressed air temperature is starting at 70° F, your cold temperature will 16° F. All of the Vortex Tubes will be able produce this same temperature drop, but depending on which Vortex Tube you use will determine the volume of flow produced at that temperature.

1.6 SCFM of flow 54° F below compressed air temperature will take 135 BTU/HR away from a small 100°F box, which is enough energy to cool a needle, a small sensor, or a tiny camera, but what if you have a bigger area you need to cool. Then you need to use a Vortex Tube that will produce more flow. The 3202, 3204, and 3208 will all produce air at the same temperature, but the 3204 and 3208 will produce more volume of cold air.  With the same parameters as above (100 PSIG of inlet pressure and 80 percent cold fraction) the 3204 will produce 3.2 SCFM of cold air and cool 275 BTU/Hr. out of a 100° F environment. The 3208 will produce 6.4 SCFM of cold air and cool 550 BTU/Hr. These larger Vortex Tubes could be used to cool a closed circuit camera in a hot environment or a small drill bit where coolant is prohibited or undesired. From here our product continue to produce more volume of flow and we can go up to our largest Vortex Tube, 3299 which will use 150 SCFM of compressed and cool up to 10,200 BTU/HR.

What if you have an application where you don’t need more air but 16°F  isn’t cold enough? Then you can adjust your cold fraction. Adjusting the cold fraction will allow you to increase the temperature drop. Opening the brass hot valve, will lower the cold fraction. As more air is allowed to escape out of the hot end of the Vortex Tube, the temperature and the flow rate of the cold flow decrease.  If you need to cool below a 50% cold fraction we recommend the 3400 series Vortex Tubes. At 100 PSIG this would occur when you need more than 100° F temperature drop.

Vortex Tubes can be used in a variety of cooling application. If you have any question about the topic discussed above please contact me or another application engineer.

Dave Woerner
Application Engineer

One Item Generates 1/4 Ton of Refrigeration and Fits in the Palm of your Hand

One of the most powerful, peculiar and perplexing products in the EXAIR catalog is the Vortex Tube. The medium sized vortex tube can generate up to a ¼ ton of refrigeration and still fit into the palm of your hand. It can generate cold temperatures that are 129° Fahrenheit below the input compressed air temperature, without any moving parts. It provides effective cooling on a wide variety of industrial systems like electrical cabinets, cutting tools, grinding operations, setting hot melt glue and a number of other cooling processes.

The Vortex Tube is used in Cabinet Cooler Systems, Cold Guns, Mini Coolers and Adjustable Spot Coolers to utilize compressed air to create cold air for your application needs. The Vortex Tube uses a Ranque-Hilsch tube to create the cooling effect. This principle has been used since 1927 to generate hot and cold flows from a source of compressed air. For more information on the physics behind how the Vortex Tube operates, visit here.

Our units are designed to operate at inlet pressures between 20-120 PSIG. The vortex tube comes in three different sizes, small, medium and large. The small unit will use between 2 and 8 SCFM of compressed air when fed with 100 PSIG of compressed air. It can be used with pressures much lower, but the change in temperature will not be as great. Below is a chart listing the temperature drops and rises of the vortex tubes with respect to supply pressure and cold fraction.

Vortex Tube Performance Data

The Cold Fraction performance chart shows temperature drops and rises for a Vortex Tube.

To use Vortex Tubes intelligently, cold fraction needs to be defined. A cold fraction is the ratio of cold air flow to total air flow through the inlet of the Vortex Tube. This cold fraction is adjustable on the Vortex Tubes and Adjustable Spot Coolers, but it is preset on the Cabinet Cooler Systems and Cold Guns. Adjusting the cold fraction changes 2 variables with the Vortex Tube. First, it changes the amount of cold flow from the Vortex Tube. Second, lowering the cold fraction also lowers the cold air temperature. Flow and temperature will both determine the heat transfer of the system.  For tool cooling operations, a very high cold fraction is used.  If you have a tool that may be operating above 150 or 200° Fahrenheit, it will cool faster with more air flow at a higher temperature than air at sub-zero temperatures. For applications where the final temperatures are very low, below freezing or sub zero, lower cold fractions can be used.

Find the blog next week to find out about what the addition of generators affects on a Vortex Tube.

Dave Woerner
Application Engineer

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