You may or may not know it, but bearings are the small components that drastically increase your level of comfort on an aircraft. Small, but mighty, bearings are used in many mechanisms throughout an aircraft including engine components, braking systems and cabin fixtures.
As their name suggests, bearings shoulder the weight of various components. Rotational and linear movement is aided by bearings, which usually include small elements such as balls or cylindrically cut jewels. The main advantage of bearings is that, by design, they reduce friction within machine mechanisms. Due to their rolling or sliding elements, the surface area between two stationary components is reduced thus lowering the level of friction. This is music to both mechanics’ ears and passengers’ ears. Mechanics worry less about component wear and tear, while passengers are spared the uncomfortable humming of multiple components vibrating.
Though simple in concept, bearings come in many different shapes and sizes that are applicable in a variety of settings. The most common types of bearings include, rolling element, jewel bearings, magnetic bearings, and fluid bearings.
Ball bearings are a type of rolling bearing that feature a set of small metal balls encased between two solid rings. Movement, particularly radial movement, is aided by ball bearings as the balls are confined within a small contact area. This type of bearing is found in applications where the load is relatively small. Gas turbine engines include ball bearings in their design to help support the crankshaft.
Tiny and precise, jewel bearings are used in dials and measuring devices. They can be made of sapphire or ruby and bear weight by rolling the axle slightly off center. These types of bearings are highly accurate and reliable. Outside of aircraft instruments, they can be found in high-quality wristwatches.
Unlike the above-mentioned bearings, magnetic bearings support weight without actually touching the two components. This impressive mechanical design is based upon electromagnetic suspension, with the load supported by magnetic levitation. While these bearings seem new age and desirable, they are one of the few bearing types that require a constant power input to keep the load stable. Aircraft turbines, motors, and generators usually include electromagnetic bearings in their design due to their ability to mitigate friction.
Fluid bearings are similar to magnetic bearings in principle are fluid bearings in that the bearings do not touch the physical components that they are supporting. Instead, the bearings feature a layer of fluid between that lubricates and assists the movement between two components. Fluid bearings can be defined by two categories; hydrostatic and hydrodynamic. The first type requires an external pump to funnel the fluid in between the two surfaces. Hydrodynamic bearings use rotation to change the liquid into a wedge between the two surfaces.
No matter the shape or application, bearings are useful mechanisms that together greatly improve the functioning of an aircraft. Without bearings, the mechanical lifespan of system components would be severely reduced. Friction is an undesirable occurrence which, left unchecked, can jeopardize the airworthiness of an aircraft. Using the right bearing, in the right setting makes all the difference.
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