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A centrifuge is a piece of equipment, generally driven by an electric motor (or, in some older models, by hand), that puts an object in rotation around a fixed axis (spins it in a circle), applying a potentially strong force perpendicular to the axis (outward).
Large centrifuges can be used to simulate high gravity or acceleration environments (for example, high-G training for test pilots). Medium-sized centrifuges are used in washing machines and at some swimming pools to wring water out of fabrics.
Many centrifuges are used as laboratory or industrial equipment to separate materials, for example small molecules from large molecules. The centrifuge works using the sedimentation principle, where the centripetal acceleration causes denser substances to separate out along the radial direction (the bottom of the tube). By the same token objects that are less dense will tend to move to the top (of the tube; in the rotating picture, move to the centre).
History and predecessors
English military engineer Benjamin Robins (1707–1751) invented a whirling arm apparatus to determine drag. In 1864, Antonin Prandtl invented the first dairy centrifuge in order to separate cream from milk. In first continuous centrifugal separator, making its commercial application feasible.
There are multiple types of centrifuge, which can be classified by intended use or by rotor design:
- Fixed-angle centrifuges are designed to hold the sample containers at a constant angle relative to the central axis.
- Swinging head (or swinging bucket) centrifuges, in contrast to fixed-angle centrifuges, have a hinge where the sample containers are attached to the central rotor. This allows all of the samples to swing outwards as the centrifuge is spun.
- Continuous tubular centrifuges do not have individual sample vessels and are used for high volume applications.
Types by intended use:
- Ultracentrifuges are optimized for spinning a rotor at very high speeds and are popular in the fields of molecular biology, biochemistry and polymer science. This type may include preparative or analytical, fixed-angle or swing head varieties.
- Haematocrit centrifuges are used to measure the percentage of red blood cells in whole blood.
- Gas centrifuges, including Zippe-type centrifuges
Industrial centrifuges may otherwise be classified according to the type of separation of the high density fraction from the low density one:
- Screen centrifuges, where the centrifugal acceleration allows the liquid to pass through a screen of some sort, through which the solids cannot go (due to granulometry larger than the screen gap or due to agglomeration). Common types are:
- Screen/scroll centrifuges
- Pusher centrifuges
- Peeler centrifuges
- Decanter centrifuges, in which there is no physical separation between the solid and liquid phase, rather an accelerated settling due to centrifugal acceleration.
- Continuous liquid; common types are:
Simple centrifuges are used in chemistry, biology, and biochemistry for isolating and separating suspensions. They vary widely in speed and capacity. They usually comprise a rotor containing two, four, six, or many more numbered wells within which the samples, contained in centrifuge tubes, may be placed.
Gas centrifuges are used in uranium enrichment. The heavier isotope of uranium (uranium-238) in the uranium hexafluoride gas tends to concentrate at the walls of the centrifuge as it spins, while the desired uranium-235 isotope is extracted and concentrated with a scoop selectively placed inside the centrifuge. It takes many thousands of centrifugations to enrich uranium enough for use in a nuclear reactor (around 3.5% enrichment), and many thousands more to enrich it to weapons-grade (above 90% enrichment) for use in nuclear weapons.
Aeronautics and astronautics
The US Air Force at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico operates a human centrifuge. The centrifuge at Holloman AFB is operated by the aerospace physiology department for the purpose of training and evaluating prospective fighter pilots for high-g flight in Air Force fighter aircraft.
The use of large centrifuges to simulate a feeling of gravity has been proposed for future long-duration space missions. Exposure to this simulated gravity would prevent or reduce the bone decalcification and muscle atrophy that affect individuals exposed to long periods of freefall.  
The first centrifuges used for human research were used by Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin. The first largescale human centrifuge designed for Aeronautical training was created in Germany in 1933.
Geotechnical centrifuge modeling
Geotechnical centrifuge modeling is used for physical testing of models involving soils. Centrifuge acceleration is applied to scale models to scale the gravitational acceleration and enable prototype scale stresses to be obtained in scale models. Problems such as building and bridge foundations, earth dams, tunnels, and slope stability, including effects such as blast loading and earthquake shaking.
- Centrifuges with a batch weight of up to 2,200 kg per charge are used in the sugar industry to separate the sugar crystals from the mother liquor.
- Standalone centrifuges for drying (hand-washed) clothes – usually with a water outlet.
- Washing machines
- Centrifuges are used in the attraction Mission: SPACE, located at Epcot in Walt Disney World, which propels riders using a combination of a centrifuge and a motion simulator to simulate the feeling of going into space.
- In soil mechanics, centrifuges utilize centrifugal acceleration to match soil stresses in a scale model to those found in reality.
- Large industrial centrifuges are commonly used in water and wastewater treatment to dry sludges. The resulting dry product is often termed cake, and the water leaving a centrifuge after most of the solids have been removed is called centrate.
- Large industrial centrifuges are also used in the oil industry to remove solids from the drilling fluid.
- Disc-stack centrifuges used by some companies in the oil sands industry to separate small amounts of water and solids from bitumen
- Centrifuges are used to separate cream (remove fat) from milk; see Separator (milk).
Protocols for centrifugation typically specify the amount of acceleration to be applied to the sample, rather than specifying a rotational speed such as revolutions per minute. This distinction is important because two rotors with different diameters running at the same rotational speed will subject samples to different accelerations. During circular motion the acceleration is the product of the radius and the square of the angular velocity , and the acceleration relative to "g" is traditionally named "relative centrifugal force" (RCF). The acceleration is measured in multiples of "g" (or × "g"), the standard acceleration due to gravity at the Earth's surface, a dimensionless quantity given by the expression:
- is earth's gravitational acceleration,
- is the rotational radius,
- is the angular velocity in radians per unit time
This relationship may be written as
- is the rotational radius measured in millimeters (mm), and
- is rotational speed measured in revolutions per minute (RPM).
To avoid having to perform a mathematical calculation every time, one can find nomograms for converting RCF to rpm for a rotor of a given radius. A ruler or other straight edge lined up with the radius on one scale, and the desired RCF on another scale, will point at the correct rpm on the third scale. Based on automatic rotor recognition, modern centrifuges have a button for automatic conversion from RCF to rpm and vice versa.
References and notes
- "Basics of Centrifugation". Cole-Parmer. Retrieved 11 March 2012.
- "Plasmid DNA Separation: Fixed-Angle and Vertical Rotors in the Thermo Scientific Sorvall Discovery™ M120 & M150 Microultracentrifuges" (Thermo Fischer publication)
- Heidcamp, Dr. William H. "Appendix F". Cell Biology Laboratory Manual. Gustavus Adolphus College,. Retrieved 11 March 2012.
- "The Pull of HyperGravity - A NASA researcher is studying the strange effects of artificial gravity on humans.". NASA. Retrieved 11 March 2012.
- Hsu, Jeremy. "New Artificial Gravity Tests in Space Could Help Astronauts". Space.com. Retrieved 11 March 2012.
- C. W. W. Ng, Y. H. Wang, L. M. Zhang (2006). Physical Modelling in Geotechnics: proceedings of the Sixth International Conference on Physical Modelling in Geotechnics. Taylor & Francis. p. 135. ISBN 0-415-41586-1.
- article on centrifugal controls, retrieved on June 5, 2010
- Nomogram example
- Lamm equation
- Centrifugal force
- Sedimentation coefficient
- Clearing factor
- Honey extractor
- Separation process (includes list of techniques)
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