The solution to pump impellers suffering from cavitation is finding a material that can withstand high pressure levels, endure harsh environments and be machinable.
by Glenn Machado, Belzona, Inc.
December 17, 2011

Cavitation is defined as the phenomenon of formation and consequent implosion of vapor bubbles in a region where the pressure of the liquid falls below its vapor pressure. Cavitation can occur in any fluid handling equipment, especially in pumps. Technological advances in industrial protective coatings and repair composite materials have made it possible to repair pumps suffering from cavitation rather than simply replacing them. Cavitation Resistant (CR) elastomers have the ability to retain adhesion under long-term immersion, dissipate energy created under high intensity cavitation and provide resistance to corrosion and other forms of erosion.

Cavitation is a serious problem for pumps. In simple terms, a pump moves a fluid from one location to another by means of mechanical actions that can be extreme and damage the internal working parts of the pump. The main area of damage can be pinpointed to the pump impeller vane. During operation, the impeller is subject to pressure gradients, which cause bubbles to form, implode and strike the surface underneath.

The phase diagram of water is a practical aid to understanding the theory behind cavitation (see Figure 1).

 Phase Diagram of Water Figure 1

Figure 1. The phase diagram of water

Figure 1 shows the three physical states of water at different temperature and pressure values. The curves on the graph represent equilibrium states. The curve bordering the liquid and gas phases is referred to as vaporization curve. At normal conditions of pressure and temperature, a fluid is at 1 atm (14.7 psi) and 25 deg C (77 deg F). Water is most commonly boiled by heating it at a constant pressure-for example, boiling a pot of water on a stovetop (follow white arrow). As temperature increases at constant pressure, water remains in a liquid phase until it reaches the normal boiling point (100 deg C at 1 atm), when it starts to boil.

What is less intuitive, but equally true, is that water can also be boiled by dropping the pressure at a constant temperature (follow red arrow in Figure 1). This is exactly what occurs behind the leading edge of a pump impeller vane. As water (or any other fluid) enters the pump, the vane deflects it. Above the leading edge of the vane, the fluid is compressed, which creates a high local pressure area. Directly after the leading edge is a small area of decreased pressure. If this decrement in pressure moves below the vaporization curve at constant temperature, the fluid will begin to boil, and vapor bubbles will form in the fluid.

Behind this low pressure area is another high pressure region. As the vapor bubbles entrained in the fluid move into this high pressure region, they condense and collapse violently against the substrate, forming what is referred to as micro jet. Figure 2 illustrates the implosion of the vapor bubbles. The top of the bubble becomes unstable and collapses toward the substrate.

Illustration of micro jet Figure 2

Figure 2. Illustration of a micro jet

During this process, the pressure has been recorded as high as 145,000,000 psi, which exceeds the elastic limit for any exotic alloy, thus proving that not even the most exotic alloys can prevent cavitation. These vapor bubbles are responsible for the mechanical damage found on pump impellers after extreme service. Figure 3 shows a typical pump suffering from cavitation and some other form of erosion after normal operation.

 Damage Caused by Micro Jet Figure 3

Figure 3. Damage caused to a pump by micro jets

 

Solution

The solution to pump impellers suffering from cavitation is finding a material that can withstand high pressure levels, endure harsh environments and be machinable. No such alloy is presently available, cost effective and easily manufactured. The only way to salvage the pump is to protect it with a sacrificial material that is readily available, easy to use and cost effective.

After countless years of research in corrosion engineering, a CR fluid elastomer that can virtually bond to any substrate, including steel, was formulated. Provided that the appropriate surface preparation is obtained, adhesion strengths of more than 3,200 kg/m² can be achieved. Combining elastomeric properties and adhesive strength, the material can withstand full immersion and the harsh working environment. More important, the material's flexible nature gives it the ability to dissipate the enormous energy involved in cavitation and other erosion processes.

A CR fluid elastomer has been in service for a number of years. Before it was available to the public, this material underwent a series of high demanding quality checks. These checks included a sequence of laboratory tests to determine that the correct properties were achieved. The testing does not stop at the inception of the product, but continues through the product's market life. To ensure its longevity, CR fluid elastomers are scheduled to be subjected to the ASTMG8 testing for magnesium anode and cathodic disbondment.

Case Study

The sides and the trailing surfaces of a large impeller had suffered from cavitation and significant metal loss (Figure 4). An authorized coating applicator carried out the application work. The methodology was as follows:

Pump impeller damage due to cavitation Figure 4

Figure 4. Close up of damage caused to a pump impeller from cavitation

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