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Hydrodynamic bearing demonstration rig.

Fluid bearings are bearings which solely support the bearing's loads on a thin layer of liquid or gas.

They can be broadly classified as fluid dynamic bearings or hydrostatic bearings. Hydrostatic bearings are externally pressurized fluid bearings, where the fluid is usually oil, water or air, and the pressurization is done by a pump. Hydrodynamic bearings rely on the high speed of the journal self-pressurizing the fluid in a wedge between the faces.

Fluid bearings are frequently used in high load, high speed or high precision applications where ordinary ball bearings have short life or high noise and vibration. They are also used increasingly to reduce cost. For example, hard disk drive motor fluid bearings are both quieter and cheaper than the ball bearings they replace.



A hydrostatic bearing has two surfaces which has a fluid forced, via a restrictive orifice, in between the surfaces so that it keeps them apart. If the gap between the surfaces reduces then the outflow via the edges of the bearing is reduced and the pressure goes up, forcing the surfaces apart again very strongly, giving excellent control of the gap and giving low friction

Fluid bearings use a thin layer of liquid or gas fluid between the bearing faces, typically sealed around or under the rotating shaft.

There are two principal ways of getting the fluid into the bearing:

  • In fluid static, hydrostatic and many gas or air bearings, the fluid is pumped in through an orifice or through a porous material.
  • In fluid-dynamic bearings, the bearing rotation sucks the fluid on to the inner surface of the bearing, forming a lubricating wedge under or around the shaft.

Hydrostatic bearings rely on an external pump. The power required by that pump contributes to system energy loss just as bearing friction otherwise would. Better seals can reduce leak rates and pumping power, but may increase friction.

Hydrodynamic bearings rely on bearing motion to suck fluid into the bearing and may have high friction and short life at speeds lower than design or during starts and stops. An external pump or secondary bearing may be used for startup and shutdown to prevent damage to the hydrodynamic bearing. A secondary bearing may have high friction and short operating life, but good overall service life if bearing starts and stops are infrequent.


Hydrodynamic lubrication

Hydrodynamic (HD) lubrication, also known as fluid film lubrication has essential elements:

  1. A lubricant, which must be a viscous fluid.
  2. Hydrodynamic flow behavior of fluid between bearing and journal.
  3. The surfaces between which the fluid films move must be convergent.

Hydrodynamic (Full Film) Lubrication is obtained when two mating surfaces are completely separated by a cohesive film of lubricant.

The thickness of the film thus exceeds the combined roughness of the surfaces. The coefficient of friction is lower than with boundary-layer lubrication. Hydrodynamic lubrication prevents wear in moving parts, and metal to metal contact is prevented.

Hydrodynamic lubrication requires thin, converging fluid films. These fluids can be liquid or gas, so long as they exhibit viscosity. In computer components, like a hard disk, heads are supported by hydrodynamic lubrication in which the fluid film is the atmosphere.

The scale of these films are on the order of micrometers. Their convergence creates pressures normal to the surfaces they contact, forcing them apart.

3 Types of bearings include:

  • Self-acting: Film exists due to relative motion.
  • Squeeze film: Film exists due to relative normal motion.
  • Externally pressurized: Film exists due to external pressurization.

Conceptually the bearings can be thought of as two major geometric classes: bearing-journal(Anti Friction), and plane-slider(Friction).

The Reynolds equations can be used to derive the governing principles for the fluids. Note that when gases are used, their derivation is much more involved.

The thin films can be thought to have pressure and viscous forces acting on them. Because there is a difference in velocity there will be a difference in the surface traction vectors. Because of mass conservation we can also assume an increase in pressure, making the body forces different.

Characteristics and principles of operation

Fluid bearings can be relatively cheap compared to other bearings with a similar load rating. The bearing can be as simple as two smooth surfaces with seals to keep in the working fluid. In contrast, a conventional rolling-element bearing may require many high-precision rollers with complicated shapes. Hydrostatic and many gas bearings do have the complication and expense of external pumps.

Most fluid bearings require little or no maintenance, and have almost unlimited life. Conventional rolling-element bearings usually have shorter life and require regular maintenance. Pumped hydrostatic and aerostatic (gas) bearing designs retain low friction down to zero speed and need not suffer start/stop wear, provided the pump does not fail.

Fluid bearings generally have very low friction—far better than mechanical bearings. One source of friction in a fluid bearing is the viscosity of the fluid. Hydrostatic gas bearings are among the lowest friction bearings. However, lower fluid viscosity also typically means fluid leaks faster from the bearing surfaces, thus requiring increased power for pumps or seals.

When a roller or ball is heavily loaded, fluid bearings have clearances that change less under load (are "stiffer") than mechanical bearings. It might seem that bearing stiffness, as with maximum design load, would be a simple function of average fluid pressure and the bearing surface area. In practice, when bearing surfaces are pressed together, the fluid outflow is constricted. This significantly increases the pressure of the fluid between the bearing faces. As fluid bearing faces can be comparatively larger than rolling surfaces, even small fluid pressure differences cause large restoring forces, maintaining the gap.

However, in lightly loaded bearings, such as disk drives, the typical ball bearing stiffnesses are ~10^7 MN/m. Comparable fluid bearings have stiffness of ~10^6 MN/m.[citation needed] Because of this, some fluid bearings, particularly hydrostatic bearings, are deliberately designed to pre-load the bearing to increase the stiffness.

Fluid bearings often inherently add significant damping. This helps attenuate resonances at the gyroscopic frequencies of journal bearings (sometimes called conical or rocking modes).

It is very difficult to make a mechanical bearing which is atomically smooth and round; and mechanical bearings deform in high-speed operation due to centripetal force. In contrast, fluid bearings self-correct for minor imperfections.

Fluid bearings are typically quieter and smoother (more consistent friction) than rolling-element bearings. For example, hard disks manufactured with fluid bearings have noise ratings for bearings/motors on the order of 20-24 dB, which is a little more than the background noise of a quiet room. Drives based on rolling-element bearings are typically at least 4 dB noisier.

Tilting pad bearings are used as radial bearings for supporting and locating shafts in compressors.


Power consumption is typically higher than ball bearings.

Power consumption and stiffness or damping greatly vary with temperature, which complicates the design and operation of a fluid bearing in wide temperature range situations.

Fluid bearings can catastrophically seize under shock situations. Ball bearings deteriorate more gradually and provide acoustic symptoms.

Like cage frequency vibration in a ball bearing, the half frequency whirl is a bearing instability that generates eccentric precession which can lead to poor performance or life.

Fluid leakage: Keeping fluid in the bearing can be a challenge.

Oil fluid bearings are impractical in environments where oil leakage can be destructive or where maintenance is not economical.

Fluid bearing 'pads' often have to be used in pairs or triples to avoid the bearing from tilting and losing the fluid from one side.

Some fluid bearings

Foil bearings

Foil bearings are a type of fluid dynamic air bearing that was introduced in high speed turbine applications in the 1960s by Garrett AiResearch. They use a gas as the working fluid, usually air and require no external pressurisation system.

Journal bearings

Pressure-oiled journal bearings appear to be plain bearings but are arguably fluid bearings. For example, journal bearings in gasoline (petrol) and diesel engines pump oil at low pressure into a large-gap area of the bearing. As the bearing rotates, oil is carried into the working part of the bearing, where it is compressed, with oil viscosity preventing the oil's escape. As a result, the bearing hydroplanes on a layer of oil, rather than on metal-on-metal contact as it may appear.

This is an example of a fluid bearing which does not use a secondary bearing for start/stop. In this application, a large part of the bearing wear occurs during start-up and shutdown, though in engine use, substantial wear is also caused by hard combustion contaminants that bridge the oil film.

Air bearings

Unlike contact-roller bearings, air bearings utilize a thin film of pressurized air to provide an exceedingly low friction load-bearing interface between surfaces. The two surfaces don't touch. Being non-contact, air bearings avoid the traditional bearing-related problems of friction, wear, particulates, and lubricant handling, and offer distinct advantages in precision positioning, such as lacking backlash and stiction, as well as in high-speed applications.[citation needed]

The fluid film of the bearing is air that flows through the bearing itself to the bearing surface. The design of the air bearing is such that, although the air constantly escapes from the bearing gap, the pressure between the faces of the bearing is enough to support the working loads.


Air hockey is a game based on an aerostatic bearing which suspends the puck and player's paddles to provide low friction and thus fast motion. The bearing uses a flat plane with periodic orifices which deliver air just over ambient pressure. The puck and paddles rest on air.

Another example of a fluid bearing is ice skating. Ice skates form a hydrodynamic fluid bearing where the skate and ice are separated by a layer of water caused by entropy (formerly thought to be caused by pressure-induced melting; see ice skating for details.)

Michell/Kingsbury tilting-pad fluid bearings

Michell/Kingsbury fluid dynamic tilting-pad bearings were invented independently and almost simultaneously by both British-born Australian, Anthony George Maldon Michell and American tribologist Albert Kingsbury. Michell's patent was granted in 1905, while Kingsbury's first patent attempt was 1907. Kingsbury's patent was eventually granted in 1911 after he demonstrated that he had been working on the concept for many years. As stated by Sydney Walker, a long-time employee of Michell's, the granting of Kingsbury's patent was "a blow which Michell found hard to accept".

The bearing has sectional shoes, or pads on pivots. When the bearing is in operation, the rotating part of the bearing carries fresh oil in to the pad area through viscous drag. Fluid pressure causes the pad to tilt slightly, creating a narrow constriction between the shoe and the other bearing surface. A wedge of pressurised fluid builds behind this constriction, separating the moving parts. The tilt of the pad adaptively changes with bearing load and speed. Various design details ensure continued replenishment of the oil to avoid overheating and pad damage.

Michell/Kingsbury fluid bearings are used in a wider variety of heavy-duty rotating equipment, including in hydroelectric plants to support turbines and generators weighing hundreds of tons. They are also used in very heavy machinery, such as marine propeller shafts.

The first tilting pad bearing in service was probably that built under A.G.M. Michell's guidance by George Weymoth (Pty) Ltd, for a centrifugal pump at Cohuna on the Murray River, Victoria, Australia, in 1907, just two years after Michell had published and patented his three-dimensional solution to Reynold's equation. By 1913, the great merits of the tilting-pad bearing had been recognised for marine applications. The first English ship to be fitted out with the bearing was the cross-channel steamboat the Paris, but many naval vessels were similarly equipped during the First World War. The practical results were spectacular - the troublesome thrust block became dramatically smaller and lighter, significantly more efficient, and remarkably free from maintenance troubles. It was estimated that the Royal Navy saved coal to a value of £500,000 in 1918 alone as a result of fitting Michell's tilting-pad bearings.

According to the ASME (see reference link), the first Michell/Kingsbury fluid bearing in the USA was installed in the Holtwood Hydroelectric Power Plant (on the Susquehanna River, near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA) in 1912. The 2.25-tonne bearing supports a water turbine and electric generator with a rotating mass of about 165 tonnes and water turbine pressure adding another 40 tonnes. The bearing has been in nearly continuous service since 1912, with no parts replaced. The ASME reported it was still in service as of 2000. As of 2002, the manufacturer estimated the bearings at Holtwood should have a maintenance-free life of about 1,300 years.


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