Definitions

Hydraulic accumulator

Hydraulic accumulator

A hydraulic accumulator is an energy storage device. It is a pressure storage reservoir in which a non-compressible hydraulic fluid is held under pressure by an external source. That external source can be a spring, a raised weight, or a compressed gas. The main reasons that an accumulator is used in a hydraulic system are so that the pump doesn't need to be so large to cope with extremes of demand, so that the supply circuit can respond more quickly to any temporary demand and to smooth pulsations.

Compressed gas accumulators are by far the most common type. These are also called hydro-pneumatic accumulators.

Types of accumulator

An accumulator is basically an energy storage device.

Raised weight

A raised weight accumulator consists of a vertical cylinder containing fluid connected to the hydraulic line. The cylinder is closed by a piston on which a series of weights are placed that exert a downward force on the piston and thereby energizes the fluid in the cylinder. In contrast to compressed gas and spring accumulators, this type delivers a nearly constant pressure, regardless of the volume of fluid in the cylinder, until it is empty. (The pressure will decline somewhat as the cylinder is emptied due to the decline in weight of the remaining fluid.)

A working example of this type of accumulator may be found at the hydraulic engine house, Bristol Harbour. The external accumulator was added around 1920. The water is pumped from the harbour into a header tank and then fed by gravity to the pumps. The working pressure is 750 psi (5.2 MPa) which is used to power the cranes, bridges and locks of Bristol Harbour.

The original operating mechanism of Tower Bridge, London, also used this type of accumulator. Although no longer in use, the accumulators may still be seen in situ in the bridge's museum.

Compressed gas (or gas-charged) accumulator

A compressed gas accumulator consists of a cylinder with two chambers that are separated by an elastic diaphragm, a totally enclosed bladder, or a floating piston. One chamber contains hydraulic fluid and is connected to the hydraulic line. The other chamber contains an inert gas under pressure that provides the compressive force on the hydraulic fluid. Inert gas is used because oxygen and oil can form an explosive mixture when combined under high pressure. As the volume of the compressed gas changes the pressure of the gas, and the pressure on the fluid, changes inversely.

Spring type

A spring type accumulator is similar in operation to the gas-charged accumulator above, except that a heavy spring (or springs) is used to provide the compressive force. According to Hooke's law the magnitude of the force exerted by a spring is linearly proportional to its extension. Therefore as the spring compresses, the force it exerts on the fluid is increased.

Metal bellows type

The metal bellows accumulators function similarly to the compressed gas type, except the elastic diaphragm or floating piston is replaced by a hermetically sealed welded metal bellows. Fluid may be internal or external to the bellows. The advantages to the metal bellows type include exceptionally low spring rate, allowing the gas charge to do all the work with little change in pressure from full to empty, and a long stroke relative to solid (empty) height, which gives maximum storage volume for a given container size. The welded metal bellows accumulator provides an exceptionally high level of accumulator performance, and can be produced with a broad spectrum of alloys resulting in a broad range of fluid compatibility. Another advantage to this type is that it does not face issues with high pressure operation, thus allowing more energy storage capacity.

Functioning of an accumulator

In modern, often mobile, hydraulic systems the preferred item is a gas charged accumulator, but simple systems may be spring-loaded. There may be more than one accumulator in a system. The exact type and placement of each may be a compromise due to its effects and the costs of manufacture.

An accumulator is placed close to the pump with a non-return valve preventing flow back to it. In the case of piston-type pumps this accumulator is placed in the best place to absorb pulsations of energy from the multi-piston pump. It also helps protect the system from fluid hammer. This protects system components, particularly pipework, from both potentially destructive forces.

An additional benefit is the additional energy that can be stored while the pump is subject to low demand. The designer can use a smaller-capacity pump. The large excursions of system components, such as landing gear on a large aircraft, that require a considerable volume of fluid can also benefit from one or more accumulators. These are often placed close to the demand to help overcome restrictions and drag from long pipework runs. The outflow of energy from a discharging accumulator is much greater, for a short time, than even large pumps could generate.

An accumulator can maintain the pressure in a system for periods when there are slight leaks without the pump being cycled on and off constantly. When temperature changes cause pressure excursions the accumulator helps absorb them. Its size helps absorb fluid that might otherwise be locked in a small fixed system with no room for expansion due to valve arrangement.

The gas precharge in an accumulator is set so that the separating bladder, diaphragm or piston does not reach or strike either end of the operating cylinder. The design precharge normally ensures that the moving parts do not foul the ends or block fluid passages. Poor maintenance of precharge can destroy an operating accumulator. A properly designed and maintained accumulator should operate trouble-free for years.

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