Going Outside The Box With Vortex Tubes

Among EXAIR’s comprehensive line of Intelligent Compressed Air Products, the Vortex Tube stands out as a unique, and fascinating, solution for a variety of applications requiring a flow of cold air:

  • Cabinet Cooler Systems: clean, cold air to protect electrical and electronic components housed in an enclosure.  Installs in minutes; no moving parts; reliable & maintenance free.
  • Cold Gun Aircoolant Systems:  Direct, focused flow of cold air to replace messy coolant in machining, cutting, drilling, grinding, etc., applications.  Integral magnet base for quick & easy installation; single or dual outlet hose kits; standard or High Power to meet any need.  Optimized flow for maximum cooling and freeze prevention.
  • Adjustable Spot Cooler: Similar to the Cold Guns in many ways, but with variable performance for specific applications.  Cold air to -30°F (-34°C) on demand.
  • Mini Cooler: Similar to the Cold Guns and Adjustable Spot Coolers – magnetic base mounting and single or dual outlet hose kits, but more compact.  Lower flows for smaller jobs.

Then there are the Vortex Tubes themselves…at the heart of all of these products, but perfectly capable all on their own.  In fact, in certain situations, “plain old” Vortex Tubes have been used to do the exact same jobs as all of the above products.  They can even be customized, in and of themselves, to meet specific installation, operation, and/or performance needs:

  • High Temperatures: It should come as no surprise that cold air is often needed because a heat-sensitive item is located in a high heat environment.
    • Vortex Tubes come standard with plastic Generators and Buna o-rings, which are good for ambient temperatures up to 125°F (52°C).
    • High Temperature Vortex Tubes are fitted with brass Generators and Viton o-rings for environments where the temperature can reach 200°F (93°C).
High Temperature Vortex Tubes are suitable for use in environments up to 200F (93C).
  • Preset temperature & flow: Many times, the ability to adjust the performance of a Vortex Tube is a big benefit, but occasionally it’s a liability.
    • I know none of your co-workers are like this (nor are mine) but I’ve heard of people who think they “know better” and are prone to tampering with something that is (or WAS) working just fine, thank you very much.
    • Perhaps you actually DO know better, through experimentation and experience, the optimal performance setting for your application.  Let’s say, for example, you install Vortex Tubes on a line of your products, and a technician has to “dial it in” to a specific Cold Fraction.
    • Any Vortex Tube can be fitted with a drilled orifice (or “Hot Plug”) to replace  the Hot Valve, which presets performance to a specific, non-adjustable value.  If you know the Cold Fraction you need, it’s as easy as that.  If not, it’s as easy as getting a stock Vortex Tube, setting the Cold Fraction where you want it, securing the Hot Valve in position (piece of tape works just fine,) and sending it in.
Preset Vortex Tubes feature a fixed plug, replacing the Hot Valve shown in this picture.

If you’ve got any other specific requirements – special materials, fittings, custom flow/temperature parameters, etc., give me a call; let’s talk.

Russ Bowman
Application Engineer
EXAIR Corporation
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Vortex Tube Cooling Capacities and Generators

Vortex  Medium Generator

Vortex Tube Generators are the internal component that controls the volume of air entering the Vortex Tube and ultimately the volume of cool/cold air produced.

Vortex family
Vortex Family

EXAIR manufactures three sizes of Vortex Tubes, small, medium & large.  Each size can produce a range of cooling power that can be changed by installing a different generator that will change the volume output capability of that Vortex Tube. The generators for small size vortex tubes can operate at 2, 4 or 8 SCFM (maximum cooling power of 550 BTU/HR),  generators for the medium size at 10, 15, 25, 30, or 40 SCFM (maximum cooling power of 2,800 BTU/HR) and the generators for the large size operate at 50, 75, 100 or 150 SCFM (maximum cooling power of 10,200 BTU/HR).  The Vortex Tube is sold with one generator installed.

The generators are marked with a number and a letter.  The number indicates the capacity (SCFM of air consumption) and the letter indicates the type of operation (“R” for maximum refrigeration or “C” for maximum cold temperature).  The maximum refrigeration (“R”) works best when the majority of the inlet air is exhausted out the cold end of the Vortex Tube. They work most efficiently with smaller temperature drops and larger volume of flow than the other generators. The maximum cold generators (“C”) can produce temperatures below 0°F, and work best when the minority of the inlet air is exhausted out the cold end of the Vortex Tube. The volume of cold air produced is less but you will experience greater temperature drops.

How A Vortex Tube Works

If a different cooling capacity is desired, other generators are available by either purchasing them individually or by purchasing one of the (3) highly versatile Vortex Tube Cooling Kits designated as the 3908 (small), 3930 (medium) or 3998 (large).  The Kits include the Vortex Tube, Filter Separator, Vinyl Tubing, Tubing Adapter, Tube Clamps, Cold End Muffler (Optional Hot End Muffler Available) and Both “R” & “C” Generators.

Vortex kit
EXAIR Medium Vortex Kit Includes: Vortex Tube, Filter Separator, Vinyl Tubing, Tubing Adapter, Tube Clamps, Cold End Muffler (Optional Hot End Muffler Available, Sold Separately) and Both “R” & “C” Generators (10, 15, 25, 30, or 40 SCFM).

If you would like to discuss Vortex Tubes, their Generators, or any of EXAIR’s safe, quiet & efficient compressed air products, I would enjoy hearing from you…give me a call.

Steve Harrison
Application Engineer
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Vortex Tubes: What is a Cold Fraction & How to use it to Your Benefit

Vortex Tubes

EXAIR has wrote many different articles about how Vortex Tubes work and the applications in which they are used.  The idea of making cold air without any freon or moving parts is a phenomenon.  This phenomenon can generate cold air to a temperature as low as -50 oF (-46 oC).  In this article, I will explain the adjustment of the Vortex Tube to get different temperatures and cooling effects in reference to the Cold Fraction.

To give a basic background on the EXAIR Vortex Tubes, we manufacture three different sizes; small, medium, and large.  These sizes can produce a range of cooling capacities from 135 BTU/hr to 10,200 BTU/hr.  The unique design utilizes a generator inside each Vortex Tube.  The generator controls the amount of compressed air that can enter into the Vortex Tube.  As an example, a medium-sized Vortex Tube, model 3240, will only allow 40 SCFM (1,133 SLPM) of compressed air to travel into the Vortex Tube at 100 PSIG (6.9 bar).  While a small-sized Vortex Tube, model 3208, will only allow 8 SCFM (227 SLPM) of compressed air at 100 PSIG (6.9 bar).  EXAIR manufactures the most comprehensive range from 2 SCFM (57 SLPM) to 150 SCFM (4,248 SLPM).

Vortex Tube Exploded View

After the compressed air goes through the generator, the pressure will drop to slightly above atmospheric pressure.  (This is the “engine” of how the Vortex Tube works).  The air will travel toward one end of the tube where there is an air control valve, or Hot Air Exhaust Valve.  This valve can be adjusted to increase or decrease the amount of air that leaves the hot end.  The remaining portion of the air is redirected toward the opposite end of the Vortex Tube, called the cold end.  By conservation of mass, the hot and cold air flows will have to equal the inlet flow as shown in Equation 1:

Equation 1: Q = Qc + Qh

Q – Vortex Inlet Flow (SCFM/SLPM)

Qc – Cold Air Flow (SCFM/SLPM)

Qh – Hot Air Flow (SCFM/SLPM)

Cold Fraction is the percentage of air that flows out the cold end of a Vortex Tube.  As an example, if the control valve of the Vortex Tube is adjusted to allow only 20% of the air flow to escape from the hot end, then 80% of the air flow has to be redirected toward the cold end.  EXAIR uses this ratio as the Cold Fraction; reference Equation 2:

Equation 2: CF = Qc/Q * 100

CF = Cold Fraction (%)

Qc – Cold Air Flow (SCFM/SLPM)

Q – Vortex Flow (SCFM/SLPM)

Vortex Tube Charts

EXAIR created a chart to show the temperature drop and rise, relative to the incoming compressed air temperature.  Across the top of the chart, we have the Cold Fraction and along the side, we have the inlet air pressure.  As you can see, the temperature changes as the Cold Fraction and inlet air pressure changes.  As the percentage of the Cold Fraction becomes smaller, the cold air flow becomes colder, but also the air flow becomes less.  You may notice that this chart is independent of the Vortex Tube size.  So, no matter the generator size of the Vortex Tube that is used, the temperature drop and rise will follow the chart above.

Vortex Tube Example

How do you use this chart?  As an example, a model 3240 Vortex Tube is selected.  It will use 40 SCFM of compressed air at 100 PSIG.  We can determine the temperature and amount of air that will flow from the cold end and the hot end.  The inlet pressure is selected at 100 PSIG, and the Hot Exhaust Valve is adjusted to allow for a 60% Cold Fraction.  Let’s use an inlet compressed air temperature to be 68 oF.  With Equation 2, we can rearrange the values to find Qc:

Qc = CF * Q

Qc = 0.60 * 40 SCFM = 24 SCFM of cold air flow

The temperature drop from the chart above is 86 oF.  If we have 68 oF at the inlet, then the temperature is (68 oF – 86 oF) = -18 oF.  So, from the cold end, we have 24 SCFM of air at a temperature of -18 oF.  For the hot end, we can calculate the flow and temperature as well.  From Equation 1,

Q = Qc + Qh or

Qh = Q – Qc

Qh = 40 SCFM – 24 SCFM = 16 SCFM

The temperature rise from the chart above is 119 oF.  So, with the inlet temperature at 68 oF, we get (119 oF + 68 oF) = 187 oF.  At the hot end, we have 16 SCFM of air at a temperature of 187 oF.

With the Cold Fraction and inlet air pressure, you can get specific temperatures for your application.  For cooling and heating capacities, these values can be used to calculate the correct Vortex Tube size.  If you need help in determining the proper Vortex Tube to best support your application, you can contact an Application Engineer at EXAIR.  We will be glad to help.

John Ball
Application Engineer
Email: johnball@exair.com
Twitter: @EXAIR_jb

EXAIR Vortex Tubes are for a Variety of Cooling Applications

Vortex tube
Cooling or Heating with the Vortex Tube

EXAIR Vortex Tubes are a low cost, reliable and maintenance free solution to a wide variety of industrial spot cooling problems.  They only requirement is a supply of compressed air as the power source.  Vortex Tubes have no moving parts and can produce temperatures that range from -50°F to +260°F (-46°C to +127°C).

Vortex Tubes produce two air streams one cold and one hot, the percentage of cold air flow from the inlet flow is referred to as the cold fraction.  The cold fraction is adjustable by the hot valve on the hot discharge side of the vortex tube.  Adjusting the hot valve results in both air temperature and air volume changes. The colder the air becomes, the volume of that cold air declines. So for very cold temperatures, a smaller volume of air is produced compared to a warmer air temperature.

For the vast majority of industrial cooling applications a larger volume of cool air will provide more efficient cooling than a lesser amount of very cold air.  Generally speaking the highest Btu/Hr values are in the 70-80% cold fraction range.

The exception to this would be in labs or special cases where the coldest temperatures are desired.  Adjusting a Vortex Tube is easy, simply insert a thermometer/thermocouple in the cold air exhaust and set the temperature by adjusting the valve on the hot end of the Vortex Tube.  You will know when you reach max refrigeration (80% cold fraction) as the cold air temperature will be 50°F (28°C) lower than the compressed air supply temperature.

EXAIR Vortex Tubes are constructed from stainless steel.  This ensures excellent wear resistance, corrosion resistance and assures years of reliable operation.  They are offered in 3 different size ranges (small, medium & large).  There are generators located inside the tube (user serviceable) that will change the volumetric flow.  The generators are available in a plastic construction or brass construction for high temperature applications.  The ranges 2 SCFM – 8 SCFM are designated as small Vortex Tubes, 10 SCFM – 40 SCFM are medium and 50 SCFM – 150 SCFM are large.  This feature allows you to customize or change your Vortex Tube for greater flexibility in a wide range of applications.

Vortex generator

Large Vortex Tubes are specified when a high flow of cold air is needed. There are 16 models to choose from in total.  Capable of providing 3,400 BTU/HR up to 10,200 BTU/HR of cooling power.  These have been used to cool high heat loads that are centrally located or to help cool samples of gases for testing.

Medium Vortex Tubes are the most popular – there are twenty to choose from, depending on the cold air flow rate and temperature you’re looking for. These can produce temperatures as cold as -40°F (-40°C) when set to a 20% Cold Fraction (which is the percentage of total supply air that’s directed to the cold end) and cold air flows as high as 32 SCFM when set to an 80% Cold Fraction, which will produce a cold air temperature of about 20°F (-7°C). Some common uses are cooling ultrasonic welds and brazed joints.

The Medium Vortex Tubes are so popular, in fact, that they’re incorporated into our Adjustable Spot Cooler and Cold Gun Systems. They come ready-to-go with mufflers, cold air hose kits, and magnetic bases, so they couldn’t be easier to use.

Adjustable Spot Cooler

Cold Gun Lineup

Small Vortex Tubes are great when low flows (less cooling power) will succeed, or if compressed air supply is limited.  There are 12 models in total to choose from. These are specified for much smaller applications, like cooling the needle of a sewing machine, small drill bits, etc. You can also get one with a cold air hose & magnetic base…that’s the Mini Cooler System.

Mini Cooler

If you would like to discuss Vortex Tubes, Spot Cooling, efficiency of your compressed air usage, quieter compressed air products and/or any EXAIR product,  I would enjoy hearing from you…give me a call.

Steve Harrison
Application Engineer
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Real Heroes Of Science: James Clerk Maxwell

People who watch way too much TV (like me) will certainly remember the “Real Men of Genius” commercials.  Here’s one of my personal favorites:

Local radio stations all over the country made parodies of these, as did sketch comics.  While trying to come up with something for my weekly blog, I saw that today was the anniversary of the passing of 19th century physicist James Clerk Maxwell.  So, if you’ll try to keep the background music from the video above playing in your head while you read this, let’s see if I can pay proper tribute:

James Clerk Maxwell…even though Albert Einstein is famous for the Special Theory of Relativity, he credited YOU for laying the groundwork.  You not only theorized the relationship between electricity, magnetism, and light, but you also proved it mathematically…so Albert didn’t have to.  He said your work was “the most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton.”

Singer: Albert Einstein pretty much called you an “Einstein” the way we call geniuses “Einsteins.”

Professor Maxwell…you devoted your life to learning.  About EVERYTHING.  As if solving Einstein’s problem with the Theory of Relativity (40 years before he knew he had a problem with it) wasn’t enough, you decided to find out what the rings of Saturn were made of.  Over 100 years before we could send the Voyager spacecraft to find out for sure.  And you were right.

Then you discovered how to take color photographs by experimenting with light filters.

Singer: Not only did you tell us what Saturn’s rings were made of, we have color photographs of them thanks to you….

James Clerk Maxwell…your theory that a “friendly little demon” could somehow separate gases into hot and cold flows, while unproven in your lifetime, did actually come to fruition by the development of the Vortex Tube.  Which does just that.

Singer: That’s right, I just drew a straight line from Maxwell’s Demon to EXAIR’s Vortex Tube & Spot Cooling Products!

So here’s to you, James Clerk Maxwell…may we continue to recognize your brilliance, and be inspired by your drive to push forward in scientific developments.

Singer (building to final crescendo): James Clerk Maxwell, a Real Hero Of Sci-i-i-i-i-ence!

If you’d like to hear the musical parts of this actually get sung, or if you’d like to find out more about Vortex Tube products and their uses (it might be best to stick with that second part actually,) give me a call.

Russ Bowman
Application Engineer
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Intelligent Compressed Air: How do Vortex Tubes Work

A vortex tube is an interesting device that has been looked upon with great fascination over the last 89 years since its discovery by George Ranque in 1928. What I’d like to do in this article is to give some insight into some of the physics of what is happening on the inside.

With a Vortex Tube, we apply a high pressure, compressed air stream to a plenum chamber that contains a turbine-looking part that we call a generator to regulate flow and spin the air to create two separate streams. One hot and one cold.

Below is an animation of how a Vortex Tube works:

Function of a Vortex Tube


The generator is a critical feature within a vortex tube that not only regulates flow and creates the vortex spinning action, it also aligns the inner vortex to allow its escape from the hot end of the vortex tube. Note the center hole on the photo below. This is where the cooled “inner vortex” passes through the generator to escape on the cold air outlet.

Vortex generator

Once the compressed air has processed through the generator, we have two spinning streams, the outer vortex and the inner vortex as mentioned above.  As the spinning air reaches the end of the hot tube a portion of the air escapes past the control valve; and the remaining air is forced back through the center of the outer vortex.  This is what we call a “forced” vortex.

If we look at the inner vortex, this is where it gets interesting.  As the air turns back into the center, two things occur.  The two vortices are spinning at the same angular velocity and in the same rotational direction.  So, they are locked together.  But we have energy change as the air processes from the outer vortex to the inner vortex.

If we look at a particle that is spinning in the outer vortex and another particle spinning in the inner vortex, they will be rotating at the same speed.  But, because we lost some mass of air through the control valve on the hot end exhaust and the radius is decreased, the inner vortex loses angular momentum.

Angular momentum is expressed in Equation 1 as:

L = I * ω

L – angular momentum
I – inertia
ω – angular velocity

Where the inertia is calculated by Equation 2:

I = m * r2

m – mass
r – radius

So, if we estimate the inner vortex to have a radius that is 1/3 the size of the outer vortex,  the calculated change in inertia will be 1/9 of its original value.  With less mass and  a smaller radius, the Inertia is much smaller.  The energy that is lost for this change in momentum is given off as heat to the outside vortex.

Adjustments in output temperatures for a Vortex Tube are made by changing the cold fraction and the input pressure.  The cold fraction is a term that we use to show the percentage of air that will come out the cold end.  The remaining amount will be exhausted through the hot end. You can call this the “hot fraction”, but since it is usually the smaller of the two flows and is rarely used, we tend to focus on the cold end flow with the “cold fraction”.  The “Cold Fraction”  is determined by the control valve on the hot end of the Vortex Tube. The “Cold Fraction” chart below can be used to predict the difference in temperature drop in the cold air flow as well as the temperature rise in the hot air flow.

Vortex Tube Cold Fraction

By combining the temperature drops expressed above with the various flow rates in which Vortex Tubes are available, we can vary the amount of cooling power produced for an application. The above cold fraction chart was developed through much testing of the above described theory of operation. The cold fraction chart is a very useful tool that allows us to perform calculations to predict vortex tube performance under various conditions of input pressure and cold fraction settings.

The most interesting and useful part about vortex tube theory is that we have been able to harness this physical energy exchange inside a tube that can fit in the palm of your hand and which has a multitude of industrial uses from spot cooling sewing needles to freezing large pipes in marine applications to enable maintenance operations on valves to be performed.

We would love to entertain any questions you might have about vortex tubes, their uses and how EXAIR can help you.

John Ball
Application Engineer

Email: johnball@exair.com
Twitter: @EXAIR_jb

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