Three design techniques can lower the operating temperature of hot running, 
tilting-pad thrust bearings.
by John K. Whalen, John Crane Engineered Bearings

A thrust bearing can run hot for many reasons—such as excessive load and/or speed, inadequate oil supply or an axial clearance that is too tight. Typically, the reason a thrust bearing runs hot is because, for whatever reason, the load has increased. Time could be spent trying to address the root cause of the problem (the increased load, and indeed that task should be undertaken in parallel) or a redesigned bearing could be installed to address the symptom (a hot running bearing). This article discusses design options available to reduce thrust bearing operating temperatures.

First, assume the existing bearing was designed, manufactured and installed correctly, is operating at the correct speed and has an adequate lube oil supply. The assumed reason for the excessive temperature is that the bearing is being subjected to a higher than anticipated load, and thrust load is one of the few measurements that are not usually verified.

Common design options to increase the load capacity of a thrust bearing that fits into the same envelope—so no other modifications are required—include:

  • Upgrade from steel-backed pads to copper alloy-backed pads
  • Modify to an offset pivot design
  • Upgrade to a direct lubricated design

Of course, these design changes presume that the bearing does not already incorporate them, and they can be combined to maximize the upgrade potential. Each of these will be addressed separately.

Upgrade from Steel-Backed Pads to Copper Alloy-Backed Pads

API specifications have stated that thrust bearings be “steel-backed.” This dates back to early editions, and the reason for this may be that a given bearing’s load capacity could be easily improved by upgrading from steel-backed pads to copper-backed pads. This upgrade could be performed by having drop-in copper pads manufactured and ready when the machine is brought down—then a simple pad swap could be performed (the float and rotor position should be checked and may need adjustment).

Copper-backed pads also fit into the “yellow metals” category. In the past, there were concerns that contaminated oil may attack the copper. Today, most lube systems are relatively clean and process products being entrained in the oil is not an issue. This is further reinforced by the thousands of bearings installed with copper alloy pads. Some extreme pressure (EP) oil additive packages contain sulfur (active or inactive), and sulfur may interact with the copper. The copper has no direct load applied to it (no contact stresses), so damage to the copper from sulfur attack, if it even occurs, is trivial. American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) test D130 could be considered if there is an EP package and a concern of attack.

The copper backing used is actually a copper alloy that is 99 percent copper and 1 percent chrome. The chrome significantly adds to the strength and stiffness of the pad. One issue with copper is that it has an affinity for tin, and when bearings are babbitted, a layer of tin is applied between the base metal and the babbitt (and the babbitt is a high-tin material itself). This concern is addressed by applying a barrier layer to the copper prior to the tinning operation. This layer isolates the copper from the tin and eliminates the problem. Copper is used because of its high heat transfer characteristics. It is about 450 percent more heat conductive than steel and this conductivity pulls heat from the babbitt surface, reducing the pad temperature. Figure 1 is a plot of the maximum pad temperature versus the bearing load for a given set of conditions (such as speed and oil supply). For this plot, only the pad material was changed.

Figure 1. Maximum pad temperature versus bearing load—pad material changed

At the low load condition, the drop in pad temperature is half that of the higher load. This is because the hotter the bearing runs, the more effective the use of copper will be—taking maximum advantage of the copper’s increase in thermal conductivity compared to steel. Reductions in temperature of 25 F (14 C) are not uncommon for hot running bearings.

Modify to an Offset Pivot Design

Most tilting pad thrust bearings are supplied with pivots centered in the pad circumferential direction. This is referred to as a 50-percent offset in which the offset is measured from the pad’s leading edge. By using a 50-percent offset, the active and inactive bearings (which experience an opposite direction of rotation) can be identical.

By moving the pivot downstream circumferentially (from the leading edge), the pad is encouraged to tilt, opening the leading edge and allowing more oil into the area between the pad and the thrust collar. This increase in pad flow cools the bearing. To a point, the more the offset, the more effective the benefit. Depending on the specific bearing configuration, some bearing modifications (other than just pad modifications) may be required to upgrade to an offset pivot design.