Bearing Failures


Written by:
Julia Postill, PE; Malcolm Leader, PE; and Ray Kelm, PE, John Crane

New bearing system keeps circulating water pumps running in a 
nuclear power plant.

After 8 years of problem-free operation, a bearing failure forced an outage at a nuclear power plant. When two more bearing failures followed in the next three months, the plant launched an analysis.

The plant assembled a failure analysis team that included plant engineers, turbomachinery consultants, repair shops and bearing manufacturers. Following a thorough investigation that included computational modeling and rotordynamics analysis, the team found that temperature fluctuations created clearance issues in the bearings, causing them to fail. In response, the team designed a new profiled bearing that was more tolerant of temperature-related clearance changes and provided excellent support to the system.

Pump Configuration

The plant’s generation station had eight vertical pumps that circulated condenser water. A 28-pole, 2,500-horsepower synchronous motor above each pump operated at 271 rpm. Each generating unit included four pumps. The units could run at full capacity with three pumps, but capacity dropped by 10 percent when two pumps were out of service.

In each failure scenario, a lower motor guide journal bearing, located opposite the thrust end, failed after a sudden drop in the ambient temperature. This bearing was 16 inches in diameter and 3.4 inches long. Each bearing had a circular bore divided by six axial slots connecting two circumferential grooves at each end. The bearing was designed to run with tight clearances to minimize vibration. The lower bearing journal was umbrella-shaped and attached to the motor’s shaft, with the lower half submerged in an oil bath sump. Two diametrical opposite holes at the bearing journal’s lower half were aligned with the bearing’s bottom circumferential groove as pumping tubes for oil supply.

Computational Fluid Dynamics Analysis

Using computational fluid dynamics (CFD) software, the analysis team developed numerical models of the passages in the oil sump and bearing liner. The analysis examined several conditions that could prohibit proper oil delivery, including the pumping hole’s alignment with the distribution groove (the bottom circumferential groove), the sump’s oil level and the oil viscosity and temperature.

One computational model—a free-surface model of the sump, rotating umbrella assembly and inlet to the pumping tubes—helped shed light on the issue. The team developed the model to determine the quality of the oil inlet conditions at the pumping tubes and to evaluate how the sump’s oil height and sump oil temperatures affected oil flow.

The free-surface model showed that the pumping tubes had to be aligned with the lower circumferential bearing groove to make the pump’s action efficient. Misalignment could reduce the volume of oil flowing through the tubes by 10 to 15 percent, which could starve the bearing’s upper half of oil, particularly if the viscosity was high. The team also found that variations in the oil sump level had not caused the failures. However, the model showed that the effects of temperature on the oil’s viscosity could affect the system. While the sump temperature never dropped below 50 F while in operation, if an equipment operator started the motor after it sat idle in below-freezing temperatures, it would not have adequate lubrication.

The team then made a three-dimensional flow model of the sump to examine its flow velocities and look for areas that had entrained air or were oil-starved. The model included the pumping tubes, bearing area and drain tubes, but excluded the sump’s free-surface model to make the numerical solution practical. The model showed that entrained air made up less than 3 percent of the sump’s volume, that the bearing journal’s rotation caused the oil velocities in the grooves and that the sump had good flow through the axial grooves and out the drains.

Bearing configuration

Plain Bearing Analysis

When the team performed its rotordynamics analysis, the bearing failures’ cause was still unclear. It appeared that the upper half of each bearing, situated above the sump level, was rubbing, which is why the team had closely scrutinized the lubrication method. The bearing’s clearance was about half a mil per inch shaft, a tight clearance used only in a vertical orientation. In this orientation, the bearing must produce enough support for the rotor to withstand imbalance forces and transient loads.

The bearings featured a plain, circular design that provided sufficient direct damping for the system. The team found that the tighter the clearance, the more direct damping the oil film would produce. The tight clearance also produced some direct stiffness to help support the system. Because the clearance was so tight, however, any clearance reduction caused by temperature changes could cause the bearings to rub and ultimately fail.

Profiled Bearing Analysis

When creating a new bearing design, the team’s goal was to increase the bearing’s clearance and provide good lateral rotor support. The team considered an offset taper pad arrangement, which provides a high level of support. These motors must transition from minus 250 rpm to plus 275 rpm at every start, though, so they needed a symmetric bearing profile design.

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See also:

Upstream Pumping Solutions

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