Elastomers (or rubbers) are a ubiquitous family of materials whose use stretches across nearly the entire range of mechanical seal designs. From plant-sourced natural rubber, so named by John Priestly in 1770 for its utility in rubbing away pencil graphite, to petroleum-sourced synthetic rubber first developed around the turn of the 20th century, elastomers and their properties are familiar but should not be overlooked—especially when dealing with mechanical seals.
How Elastomers Work in Mechanical Seals
Rubber seals come in a variety of profiles—O-rings, cup gaskets, bellows diaphragms, sealing/wiper lips and many others. They are classified as either static or dynamic and create positive pressure against surfaces to eliminate or control the leakage of liquids and/or gases while preventing the entrance of external contaminants such as dust and dirt.1 Static sealing occurs between adjacent surfaces with no relative motion, such as between the pump casing and cover. Due to frictional wear and heat generation, dynamic sealing is less straightforward, occurring between adjacent surfaces that are continuously or intermittently moving relative to another, such as between the pump casing and shaft.
In mechanical face seals, elastomers tend to take second chair because the primary seal—the dynamic seal between the housing and rotating shaft—is achieved by sliding contact between the pair of stiffer, lapped-flat sealing faces, one stationary in the housing and one rotating with the shaft. In many designs, rubber provides the secondary seal between each seal face and adjacent surface. One seal face is fixed and sealed statically using an O-ring or cup gasket. The other is spring-loaded and requires a semi-dynamic seal to accommodate some axial play, such as a dynamic O-ring in pusher-type mechanical face seals or elastomeric bellows in nonpusher ones. These semi-dynamic applications (involving flexing and sliding of the elastomer) can be critical for maintaining proper contact between the faces through face wear, shaft movement, etc.
Although the seal face pair tends to be the most critical design feature, mechanical face seals are often used in the most demanding applications.
Rubber technology features prominently in radial lip seals, where typical applications have lower pressure-velocity (PV) values relative to those involving mechanical face seals. Still, the flexible elastomer lip must handle considerable relative motion in the form of shaft/bore rotation, reciprocation or a combination of both. In addition to standard designs and sizes, numerous customizations and proprietary approaches exist. The simplest designs rely on a single rubber lip’s inherent resiliency, although common enhancements include multiple sealing lips, a circumferential garter spring installed in a groove over the sealing lip to maintain contact with the shaft, and an auxiliary wiper lip or “excluder” to prevent abrasive dust or debris from compromising the primary sealing surface. For improving service life and performance in rotary applications, unidirectional or bidirectional hydrodynamic pumping aids can be added in the form of custom-shaped extrusions on the backside of the sealing lip to return leaked fluid to the sealing interface, increase lip lubrication and lower operating temperatures.
Benefits of Rubber
The definition of an elastomer provides initial insight into where rubber gets its resilient sealing quality: “a macromolecular material which, in the vulcanized state and at room temperature, can be stretched repeatedly to at least twice its original length and which, upon release of the stress, will immediately return to approximately its original length.”2
When the rubber is squeezed by the adjacent surfaces of the clearance gap to be sealed, it has the characteristic properties of malleably deforming and taking the shape of each surface in response to the stress and applying a force back against the surfaces in its attempt to return to its original dimensions. Elastomers consist of large molecules called polymers (from the Greek “poly” meaning “many” and “meros” meaning “parts”), which are long chains of the same or different repeating units, called monomers, usually linked together by carbon-carbon bonds (the most notable exception being silicone elastomers, which are linked by silicon-oxygen bonds). Soft and hard plastics are also composed of polymers. However, the regularity of the monomers in their polymer chains allows neighboring segments to align and form crystals, making the macromolecular plastic material rigid and inelastic.
One can prevent this crystallization by breaking up the regularity of the polymer chain, resulting usually in a viscous “gum” that is readily shaped into molds. At the molecular level, the polymer chains are similar to spaghetti-like strands flowing past each other.