Monday, February 1, 2016

Cavitation - Scourge of Industrial Process Control Valves Everywhere

Cavitation produces vapor bubbles in liquids
Cavitation produces bubbles in flowing process liquids
Consider a generic industrial fluid process control operation. There are pumps, valves, and other components installed in the process lines that, due to their interior shape or their function, cause changes in the fluid motion. Let's look specifically at control valves and how their throttling operation can create conditions able to greatly impact the valve itself, as well as the overall process.

Fluid traversing a control valve can undergo an increase in velocity when passing the constriction presented by the valve trim. Exiting the trim, fluid then enters the widening area of the valve body immediately downstream with a decrease in velocity. This change in velocity corresponds to a change in the kinetic energy of the fluid molecules. In order that energy be conserved in a moving fluid stream, any increase in kinetic energy due to increased velocity will be accompanied by a complementary decrease in potential energy, usually in the form of fluid pressure. This means the fluid pressure will fall at the point of maximum constriction in the valve (the vena contracta, at the point where the trim throttles the flow) and rise again (or recover) downstream of the trim.

This is where cavitation begins.

If the fluid being throttled is a liquid, and the pressure at the vena contracta is less than the vapor pressure of the liquid at the flowing temperature, portions of the liquid will spontaneously vaporize. This is the phenomenon of flashing. If, subsequently, the pressure of the fluid recovers to a level greater than the vapor pressure of the liquid, any flashed vapor will rapidly condense, returning to liquid. This collapse of entrained vapor is called cavitation.

Flashing, the generation of vapor bubbles within the liquid, will precede and set the stage for cavitation. When the flashed vapor bubbles condense to liquid they often do so asymmetrically, with one side of the bubble collapsing before the rest of the bubble. This has the effect of translating the kinetic energy of the bubble’s collapse into a high-speed “jet” of liquid in the direction of the asymmetrical collapse. These liquid “microjets” have been experimentally measured at speeds up to 100 meters per second (over 320 feet per second). What is more, the pressure applied to the surface of control valve components in the path of these microjets can be intense. An individual microjet can impact the valve interior surfaces in a very focused manner, delivering a theoretical pressure pulse of up to 1500 newtons per square millimeter (1.5 giga-pascals, or about 220000 PSI) in water. In an operating fluid system, this process can be continuous, and is known to be a significant cause of erosive wear on metallic surfaces in process piping, valves, pumps and instruments. As the rapid change in pressure takes place, the bubbles (voids in the liquid) collapse (implode), and the surrounding metal surfaces are repeatedly stressed by these implosions and their subsequent shock waves.

Consequences for control valves, as well as for the entire control process, vary and are often destructive. They may include:
  • Loud noise
  • Strong vibrations in the affected sections of the fluid system
  • Choked flow caused by vapor formation
  • Change of fluid properties
  • Erosion of valve components
  • Premature destruction or failure of the control valve 
  • Plant shutdown
The video provides a visual demonstration, through clear piping, of what happens inside the piping system when a valve is operated in a manner that causes substantial cavitation.

The solution lies in minimizing the potential for cavitation to occur through proper valve selection and sizing, along with coordinating operating characteristics of pressure drop inducing components with the total system performance. One valve manufacturer's recommendations are summed up in four basic approaches.
  • Avoidance of cavitation through proper valve selection. Use a valve with a rated liquid pressure recovery factor greater than that required for the application. Some applications may be suitable for the use of an orifice plate downstream of the valve.
  • Cavitation Tolerant Components capable of withstanding limited amounts of cavitation without excessive wear. Increased flow noise is likely to accompany this route.
  • Prevention of cavitation through the use of valve trim design that reduces pressure in several steps, avoiding excessive flashing. These valves can be expensive, but their effectiveness makes them an alternative worth considering.
  • Containment of the harmful effects of limited to moderate cavitation through trim designs that eliminate contact of the fluid with metal surfaces which are more susceptible to damage.
Share your requirements and application challenges with a valve specialist and gain insight through their recommendations. Combining your process knowledge with their product application expertise will yield a great solution.