By Dr. David A. Summers, Curators’ Professor at Missouri University of Science & Technology
High-pressure pumps generally draw water into a cylindrical cavity and then expel it with a reciprocating piston. There are a number of different ways in which the piston can be driven. It can be connected eccentrically to a rotating shaft, so that, as the shaft rotates, the piston is pushed in and out. The pistons can be moved by the rotation of an inclined plate, so that, as the plate rotates, so the pistons are displaced.
And, more commonly at higher pressures, the piston can be of a dual size, so that, as a lower pressure fluid on one side of the piston pushes forward, so a higher pressure fluid on the smaller end of the piston is driven into the outlet manifold, and out of the pump. This latter pump design has become commonly known as an Intensifier Pump. The simplified basis for its operation might be shown using the line drawing that was used earlier.
When the intensifier is built, the simplified beauty of its construction is more evident.
However, what I would like to discuss today is what happens when the pistons in these cylinders reaches the ends of their stroke, and it is a little easier to use an Intensifier as a starting point for this discussion, although (as I will show) it also relates to the other designs of high-pressure pumps that also use pistons.
Consider if there was only one side to the piston, rather than it producing high pressure in both directions. This design is known as a single acting Intensifier, and it might, schematically, look like this:
As the piston starts to move from the right-hand side of the cylinder toward the left, driven by the pressure on the large side of the piston, it displaces water from the smaller diameter cylinder on the left. Assume that the area ratio is 20:1 and that the low-pressure fluid is entering at 5,000 psi, then, simplistically, the fluid in the high pressure pump chamber will be discharged at 100,000 psi. But not immediately!
The outlet valve has been set, so that it will not open until the fluid has reached the required discharge pressure, and this will require a small initial movement of the piston (perhaps around 12%) to compress the water and raise it to that pressure before the valve opens. And, with a single intensifier piston, when the piston has moved all the way to the left and the high pressure end is emptied of water, then there will be no more flow from that cylinder, until the piston has been pushed back to the far end of the cylinder, and the process is ready to start again.
Some of that problem of continuous flow is overcome when the single-acting intensifier is made dual-acting, because at the end of the stroke to the left, fluid has entered the chamber on the right, and when the piston starts its return journey the cylinder on the right will discharge high pressure fluid. But again not immediately!
One way of overcoming this is to use two single-acting pistons, but with a drive that is timed (phased) so that the second piston starts to move just before the first piston reaches the end of its stroke. This takes out the dead time during the directional change. The two can be compared:
In cutting operations, reducing the pulsation from the jet is often important in minimizing variations in cut quality and thus, to dampen the pulsations with a dual-acting system, a different approach is taken and a small accumulator is put into the delivery line, so that the fluid in that volume can help maintain the pressure during the time of transition.
A simplified schematic can again be used to show where an accumulator might be placed.
On the other hand, in cleaning applications particularly with water and no abrasive, there are occasions (which I will get to later) where a pulsation might improve the operation of the system. A three piston pump, without an accumulator will see a variation in the pressure output that may see an instantaneous drop to 12% below average and then a rise to 6% above average during a cycle. One way of reducing this is to increase the number of pistons that are being driven in the pump.
When one changes, for example, from the three pistons (triplex) to five pistons (quintupled), then the variation in outlet pressure is significantly less.
Part of the reason that longer steadier pulses of water, which come from the slower stroke of the intensifier, can be of advantage is that the water is a jet and comes out of the nozzle at a speed that is controlled by the driving pressure. A strong change in pressure means that there is a change in the velocity of the water stream along the jet. This means that slower sections of the jet are, at greater standoff distances, caught up with by the following faster slugs of the jet. This makes the jet more unstable. That can, however, be an advantage in some cases, and this will be discussed at some later time, when a better foundation has been established to explain what the effects are.