A centrifuge is a piece of equipment, generally driven by a motor, that puts an object in rotation around a fixed axis, applying a force perpendicular to the axis. The centrifuge works using the sedimentation principle, where the centripetal acceleration is used to evenly distribute substances (usually present in a solution for small scale applications) of greater and lesser density. There are many different kinds of centrifuges, including those for very specialised purposes. It can be used for viable counts, when shaking the culture e.g. yeast, out of suspension.
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. The acceleration is often quoted in multiples of g, the standard acceleration due to gravity at the Earth's surface. This distinction is important because two rotors with different diameters running at the same rotational speed will subject samples to different accelerations.
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. And in 1879, Gustaf de Laval demonstrated the first continuous centrifugal separator, making its commercial application feasible.
Industrial centrifuges may otherwise be classified according to the type of separation of the high density fraction from the low density one :
Gas centrifuges are used in uranium enrichment. The heavier isotope of uranium (uranium-238) in the uranium hexafluoride gas tend 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 centrifuges to enrich uranium enough for use in a nuclear reactor (around 3.5% enrichment), and many thousands more to enrich it to weapons-grade (around 90% enrichment) for use in nuclear weapons.
The US Air Force at Holloman Air Force Base, NM 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. It is important to note that the centrifuge at Holloman AFB is unrealistic in that it is far more difficult for a pilot to tolerate the high-g environment in the centrifuge than in a real fighter aircraft. This well-known fact is based on countless accounts from experienced operational fighter pilots.
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. An example of this can be seen in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Relative centrifugal force is the measurement of the force applied to a sample within a centrifuge. This can be calculated from the speed (RPM) and the rotational radius (cm) using the following calculation.