Performance of Simple Gas Foil Thrust Bearings in Air

by Robert J. Bruckner
NASA Glenn Research Center

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Foil bearings are self-acting hydrodynamics devices used to support high speed rotating machinery. The advantages that they offer to process fluid lubricated machines include: high rotational speed capability, no auxiliary lubrication system, non-contacting high speed operation, and improved damping as compared to rigid hydrodynamic bearings. NASA has had a sporadic research program in this technology for almost 6 decades. Advances in the technology and understanding of foil journal bearings have enabled several new commercial products in recent years. These products include oil-free turbochargers for both heavy trucks and automobiles, high speed electric motors, microturbines for distributed power generation, and turbojet engines. However, the foil thrust bearing has not received a complimentary level of research and therefore has become the weak link of oil-free turbomachinery. In an effort to both provide machine designers with basic performance parameters and to elucidate the underlying physics of foil thrust bearings, NASA Glenn Research Center has completed an effort to experimentally measure the performance of simple gas foil thrust bearing in air. The database includes simple bump foil supported thrust bearings with full geometry and manufacturing techniques available to the user. Test conditions consist of air at ambient pressure and temperatures up to 500C and rotational speeds to 55,000 rpm. A complete set of axial load, frictional torque, and rotational speed is presented for two different compliant sub-structures and inter-pad gaps. Data obtained from commercially available foil thrust bearings both with and without active cooling is presented for comparison. A significant observation made possible by this data set is the speed – load capacity characteristic of foil thrust bearings. Whereas for the foil journal bearing the load capacity increases linearly with rotational speed, the foil thrust bearing operates in the hydrodynamic high speed limit. In this case, the load capacity is constant and in fact often decreases with speed if other factors such as thermal conditions and runner distortions are permitted to dominate the bearing performance.