Pneumatics is a section of technology that deals with the study and application of pressurized gas to produce mechanical motion.
Pneumatic systems, that are used extensively in industry, and factories, are commonly plumbed with compressed air or compressed inert gases. This is because a centrally located and electrically powered compressor, that powers cylinders and other pneumatic devices through solenoid valves, can often provide motive power in a cheaper, safer, more flexible, and more reliable way than a large number of electric motors and actuators.
Examples of pneumatic systems and components
- Air brakes on buses and trucks
- Air brakes on trains
- Air compressors
- Air engines for pneumatically powered vehicles
- Barostat systems used in Neurogastroenterology and for researching electricity
- Cable jetting, a way to install cables in ducts
- Compressed-air engine and compressed-air vehicles
- Gas-operated reloading
- Holman Projector, a pneumatic anti-aircraft weapon
- HVAC control systems
- Inflatable structures
- Lego pneumatics can be used to build pneumatic models
- Exercise machines
- Pipe organs:
- Pneumatic actuator
- Pneumatic air guns
- Pneumatic bladder
- Pneumatic cylinder
- Pneumatic Launchers, a type of spud gun
- Pneumatic mail systems
- Pneumatic motor
- Pneumatic tire
Gases used in pneumatic systems
Pneumatic systems in fixed installations, such as factories, use compressed air because a sustainable supply can be made by compressing atmospheric air. The air usually has moisture removed, and a small quantity of oil is added at the compressor to prevent corrosion and lubricate mechanical components.
Factory-plumbed pneumatic-power users need not worry about poisonous leakage, as the gas is usually just air. Smaller or stand-alone systems can use other compressed gases that present an asphyxiation hazard, such as nitrogen—often referred to as OFN (oxygen-free nitrogen) when supplied in cylinders.
Any compressed gas other than air is an asphyxiation hazard—including nitrogen, which makes up 78% of air. Compressed oxygen (approx. 21% of air) would not asphyxiate, but is not used in pneumatically-powered devices because it is a fire hazard, more expensive, and offers no performance advantage over air.
Portable pneumatic tools and small vehicles, such as Robot Wars machines and other hobbyist applications are often powered by compressed carbon dioxide, because containers designed to hold it such as soda stream canisters and fire extinguishers are readily available, and the phase change between liquid and gas makes it possible to obtain a larger volume of compressed gas from a lighter container than compressed air requires. Carbon dioxide is an asphyxiant and can be a freezing hazard if vented improperly.
Comparison to hydraulics
Both pneumatics and hydraulics are applications of fluid power. Pneumatics uses an easily compressible gas such as air or a suitable pure gas—while hydraulics uses relatively incompressible liquid media such as oil. Most industrial pneumatic applications use pressures of about 80 to 100 pounds per square inch (550 to 690 kPa). Hydraulics applications commonly use from 1,000 to 5,000 psi (6.9 to 34 MPa), but specialized applications may exceed 10,000 psi (69 MPa).
Advantages of pneumatics
- Simplicity of design and control—Machines are easily designed using standard cylinders and other components, and operate via simple on-off control.
- Reliability—Pneumatic systems generally have long operating lives and require little maintenance. Because gas is compressible, Equipment is less subject to shock damage. Gas absorbs excessive force, whereas fluid in hydraulics directly transfers force. Compressed gas can be stored, so machines still run for a while if electrical power is lost.
- Safety—There is a very low chance of fire compared to hydraulic oil. Machines are usually overload safe.
Advantages of hydraulics
- Liquid (as a gas is also a 'fluid') does not absorb any of the supplied energy.
- Capable of moving much higher loads and providing much higher forces due to the incompressibility.
- The hydraulic working fluid is basically incompressible, leading to a minimum of spring action. When hydraulic fluid flow is stopped, the slightest motion of the load releases the pressure on the load; there is no need to "bleed off" pressurized air to release the pressure on the load.
Pneumatic logic systems (sometimes called air logic control) are often used to control industrial processes, consisting of primary logic units such as:
- And Units
- Or Units
- 'Relay or Booster' Units
- Latching Units
- 'Timer' Units
- Sorteberg relay
- Fluidics amplifiers with no moving parts other than the air itself
Pneumatic logic is a reliable and functional control method for industrial processes. In recent years, these systems have largely been replaced by analog electronic or digital control systems in new installations because of the smaller size, lower cost, greater precision, and more powerful features of digital controls. Many pneumatic devices are still used in processes, however, where the advantages of digital controls are outweighed by such considerations as:
- The cost of upgrading an entire system from pneumatic to digital control is prohibitive
- Safety might be compromised (e.g., potential sparks near explosive gases)
- Compressed air is the most viable energy source available
- KMC Controls. "Air Today, Digital Tomorrow: Pneumatic to BAS Conversions". Retrieved 8 April 2013.
- Compressed Air Operations Manual, ISBN 0-07-147526-5, McGraw Hill Book Company
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