The Theory of the Vortex Tube

There are many theories regarding the dynamics of a vortex tube and how it works. Many a graduate student has studied them as part of their research requirements.


The Vortex Tube was invented by accident in 1928, by George Ranque, a French physics student. He was performing experiments on 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 stopped work on the pump, and started a company to take 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.

Here is one widely accepted explanation of the physics and the phenomenon of the vortex tube.VT

Compressed air is supplied to vortex tube and passes through nozzles that are tangent to to an internal counterbore (1). As the air passes through it is set into a spiraling vortex motion (2) 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 (4) at the end allows some of the warmed air to escape (6) 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 the through the other end of as cold air (5).

It is thought that that both the hot and cold air streams rotate in the same direction at the same angular velocity, even though they are travelling in opposite directions. A particle of air in the inner stream completes one rotation in the same amount of time that an air particle in the outer stream. The principle of conservation of angular momentum would say that the rotational speed of the inner inner vortex should increase because the angular momentum of a rotating particle (L) is equal to the radius of rotation (r) times its 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 Coolers, Cabinet Coolers, and the Vortex Tube themselves.

Harnessing the cooling power of the vortex tube 

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 EXAIR and myself or any of our Application Engineers can help you determine the best solution.

Brian Bergmann
Application Engineer
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Six Steps To Optimizing Your Compressed Air System – Step 1: Measure

“To measure is to know – if you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it.”
-Lord Kelvin, mathematical physicist, engineer,and pioneer in the field of thermodynamics.

This is true of most anything. If you want to lose weight, you’re going to need a good scale. If you want to improve your time in the 100 yard dash, you’re going to need a good stopwatch. And if you want to decrease compressed air consumption, you’ll need a good flowmeter. In fact, this is the first of six steps that we can use to help you optimize your compressed air system.

Six Steps To Optimizing Your Compressed Air System

There are various methods of measuring fluid flow, but the most popular for compressed air is thermal mass air flow.  This has the distinct advantage of accurate and instantaneous measurement of MASS flow rate…which is important, because measuring VOLUMETRIC flow rate would need to be corrected for pressure in order to determine the true compressed air consumption.  My colleague John Ball explains this in detail in a most excellent blog on Actual (volume) Vs. Standard (mass) Flows.

So, now we know how to measure the mass flow rate.  Now, what do we do with it?  Well, as in the weight loss and sprint time improvements mentioned earlier, you have to know what kind of shape you’re in right now to know how far you are from where you want to be.  Stepping on a scale, timing your run, or measuring your plant’s air flow right now is your “before” data, which represents Step One.  The next Five Steps are how you get to where you want to be (for compressed air optimization, that is – there may be a different amount of steps towards your fitness/athletic goals.)  So, compressed air-wise, EXAIR offers the following solutions for Step One:

Digital Flowmeter with wireless capability.  This is our latest offering, and it doesn’t get any simpler than this.  Imagine having a flowmeter installed in your compressed air system, and having its readings continually supplied to your computer.  You can record, analyze, manipulate, and share the data with ease.

Monitor your compressed air flow wirelessly over a ZigBee mesh network.

Digital Flowmeter with USB Data Logger.  We’ve been offering these, with great success, for almost seven years now.  The Data Logger plugs into the Digital Flowmeter and, depending on how you set it up, records the flow rate from once a second (for about nine hours of data) up to once every 12 hours (for over two years worth.)  Pull it from your Digital Flowmeter whenever you want to download the data to your computer, where you can view & save it in the software we supply, or export it directly into Microsoft Excel.

From the Digital Flowmeter, to your computer, to your screen, the USB Data Logger shows how much air you’re using…and when you’re using it!

Summing Remote Display.  This connects directly to the Digital Flowmeter and can be installed up to 50 feet away.  At the push of a button, you can change the reading from actual current air consumption to usage for the last 24 hours, or total cumulative usage.  It’s powered directly from the Digital Flowmeter, so you don’t even need an electrical outlet nearby.

Monitor compressed air consumption from a convenient location, as well as last 24 hours usage and cumulative usage.

Digital Flowmeter.  As a stand-alone product, it’ll show you actual current air consumption, and the display can also be manipulated to show daily or cumulative usage. It has milliamp & pulse outputs, as well as a Serial Communication option, if you can work with any of those to get your data where you want it.

With any of the above options, or stand-alone, EXAIR’s Digital Flowmeter is your best option for Step One to optimize your compressed air system.

Stay tuned for more information on the other five steps.  If you just can’t wait, though, you can always give me a call.  I can talk about compressed air efficiency all day long, and sometimes, I do!