Magnetic Bearings Making Cleaner Technology More Attractive

Jan. 8, 2010
New 'frictionless' technologies are making industrial equipment such as compressors, turbines, and motors more affordable, efficient and environmentally-friendly.

Sometimes to make the world a better, greener place you have to re-think an old rule. Today, thanks to a number of engineering innovations, the squeaky wheel (or in this case, the shaft bearing) is not getting the grease -- new "frictionless" technologies are making industrial equipment such as compressors, turbines, and motors more affordable, efficient,and environmentally friendly.

It's one example in a shifting paradigm. According to a third quarter report from the Cleantech Group and Deloitte, the global "cleantech" sector attracted $1.59 billion in venture capital investment across 134 companies-up 10% from the previous quarter this year. In fact, cleantech is projected to make up more than one quarter of venture capital funding in 2009, making it the largest single sector for that form of financing.

It needn't be massive projects that change the world, though. In the case of magnetic bearings -- the change may appear less visible but the impact is quite substantial.

For decades, industrial machinery required significant amounts of lubricant to keep bearings functioning, and the promising concept of magnetic bearings was held in check by the realities of existing technology. Where oil films are conventionally used to prevent friction and wear between sliding surfaces, magnetic bearings maintain a small gap between the surfaces using magnetic forces, eliminating the need for lubricants. Eliminating lubricants also greatly reduces viscous friction, which makes the machine more energy efficient.

Historically, the larger size and complexity of magnetic bearings has made them difficult to integrate into a rotating machine, limiting the range of applications. The cost of magnetic bearings system has also been a limitation. But recently, a new generation of magnetic bearings has emerged using design innovations that benefit from technology advances in the fields of digital processing and power electronics. The magnetic bearings allows the elimination of "old technology parts" such as oil reservoirs, pipes, heat exchangers, filters, and gears, and replaces them with "new technology parts" such as electromagnets, digital processors, sensors and communication networks.

Some of the technology is mind-boggling: a digital processor uses sensor information to determine the actual spacing between rotating and stationary components, and then calculates what new distribution of magnetic forces are needed to maintain the desired spacing. The digital processor then instructs the power amplifiers as to the proper voltages to apply to the electromagnets to achieve this spacing. This cycle of sensing and correction occurs at about 15,000 times per second, and ensures that the magnetic bearings can almost instantaneously compensate for any disturbances. The optimal spacing between the stationary and moving surfaces is typically about 1/100th of an inch, or about three times the diameter of a human hair!

The payoff came not only in the form of a great product, but in recognition, as well. In July 2009, the prestigious R&D magazine named Synchrony's Fusion magnetic bearing as one of the 100 most technologically significant products of the past year.

Today, magnetic bearings improve reliability, reduce friction, minimize vibration and offer advanced health monitoring and diagnostics -- all without the potential environmental disadvantages of lubricants.

These advances have accelerated the use of magnetic bearings in the industrial and defense sectors. The wide range of applications include highly efficient and environmentally friendly motors, generators, pumps, compressors, fans, and blowers in sectors such as oil and gas, renewable energy, air separation, water treatment, and defense markets.

That range expands seemingly every day. McQuay International, part of Daikin Industries, is the world's second largest heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) company, and an industry leader in green HVAC systems. It recently announced that Synchrony's innovative technology will be integrated into its new line of frictionless chillers. These systems are designed for high efficiency commercial and industrial buildings, such as sustainable buildings designed to meet requirements for LEED(r) Green Building Certification.

Thus, another lesson in the cleantech economy is that one green technology helps another, keeping the market demand growing while continuing to improve the environment.

Most importantly this green technology benefits a progressive company's bottom line. In September 2009, former Virginia Gov. George Allen and current Chairman of American Energy Freedom Center saw real cost benefits in advanced magnetic bearing technology. He said, "Using this magnetic approach, I think, is revolutionary. It will save at least 10% in electricity costs." He also said those savings would translate into millions of dollars for companies who use a lot of electricity."

These cost savings and ability to provide a significant environmental benefit have provided us with a lesson we share with all our colleagues: even in a troubled economy, we have seen an increased interest and demand for innovative ways to provide clean, reliable and efficient solutions. In the case of magnetic bearings in high performance rotating machinery, it means a substantial reduction in operating costs while also reducing environmental hazards.

The lesson is universal. The market for doing well by doing good continues to expand. Green alternatives that pay for themselves are a win-win that should be attractive to any industry.

Dr. Victor Iannello is CEO and Founder of Synchrony Inc., a provider of clean, efficient, and reliable technology for rotating machinery and power conversion systems.

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