Magnetic bearing

A magnetic bearing is a bearing which supports a load using magnetic levitation. Magnetic bearings support moving machinery without physical contact, for example, they can levitate a rotating shaft and permit relative motion without friction or wear. They are in service in such industrial applications as electric power generation, petroleum refining, machine tool operation and natural gas pipelines. They are also used in the Zippe-type centrifuge used for uranium enrichment. Magnetic bearings support the highest speeds of any kind of bearing; they have no known maximum relative speed.


It is difficult to build a magnetic bearing using permanent magnets due to the limitations imposed by Earnshaw's theorem, and techniques using diamagnetic materials are relatively undeveloped. As a result, most magnetic bearings require continuous power input and an active control system to hold the load stable. Because of this complexity, the magnetic bearings also typically require some kind of back-up bearing in case of power or control system failure.

Two sorts of instabilities are very typically present with magnetic bearings. Firstly attractive magnets give an unstable static force, decreasing with greater distance, and increasing at close distances. Secondly since magnetism is a conservative force, in and of itself it gives little if any damping, and oscillations will cause loss of successful suspension if any driving forces are present, which they very typically are.

The use of an induction-based levitation system present in cutting-edge MAGLEV technologies, magnetic bearings could do away with complex control systems by using Halbach arrays and simple closed loop coils.

Basic Operation

An active magnetic bearing (AMB) consists of an electromagnet assembly, a set of power amplifiers which supply current to the electromagnets, a controller, and gap sensors with associated electronics to provide the feedback required to control the position of the rotor within the gap. These elements are shown in the diagram. The power amplifiers supply equal bias current to two pairs of electromagnets on opposite sides of a rotor. This constant tug-of-war is mediated by the controller which offsets the bias current by equal but opposite perturbations of current as the rotor deviates by a small amount from its center position.

The gap sensors are usually inductive in nature and sense in a differential mode. The power amplifiers in a modern commercial application are solid state devices which operate in a pulse width modulation (PWM) configuration. The controller is usually a microprocessor or DSP.


Magnetic bearing advantages include very low and predictable friction, ability to run without lubrication and in a vacuum. Magnetic bearings are increasingly used in industrial machines such as compressors, turbines, pumps, motors and generators. Magnetic bearings are commonly used in watt-hour meters by electric utilities to measure home power consumption. Magnetic bearings are also used in high-precision instruments and to support equipment in a vacuum, for example in flywheel energy storage systems. A flywheel in a vacuum has very low windage losses, but conventional bearings usually fail quickly in a vacuum due to poor lubrication. Magnetic bearings are also used to support maglev trains in order to get low noise and smooth ride by eliminating physical contact surfaces. Disadvantages include high cost, and relatively large size.

A very interesting new application of magnetic bearings is their use in artificial hearts. The use of magnetic suspension in ventricular assist devices was pioneered by Prof. Paul Allaire and Prof. Houston Wood at the University of Virginia culminating in the first magnetically suspended ventricular assist centrifugal pump (VAD) in 1999.


The evolution of active magnetic bearings may be traced through the patents issued in this field. The table below lists several early patents for active magnetic bearings. Earlier patents for magnetic suspensions can be found but are excluded here because they consist of assemblies of permanent magnets of problematic stability per Earnshaw's Theorem.

Early active magnetic bearing patents were assigned to Jesse Beams at the University of Virginia during World War II and are concerned with ultracentrifuges for purification of the isotopes of various elements for the manufacture of the first nuclear bombs, but the technology did not mature until the advances of solid-state electronics and modern computer-based control technology with the work of Habermann and Schweitzer. Extensive modern work in magnetic bearings has continued at the University of Virginia in the Rotating Machinery and Controls Industrial Research Program. The first international symposium for active magnetic bearing technology was held in 1988 with the founding of the International Society of Magnetic Bearings by Prof. Schweitzer, Prof. Allaire (University of Virginia), and Prof. Okada (Ibaraki University). Since then there have been nine succeeding symposia. Kasarda reviews the history of AMB in depth. She notes that the first commercial application of AMB’s was with turbomachinery. The AMB allowed the elimination of oil reservoirs on compressors for the NOVA Gas Transmission Ltd. (NGTL) gas pipelines in Alberta, Canada. This reduced the fire hazard allowing a substantial reduction in insurance costs. The success of these magnetic bearing installations led NGTL to pioneer the research and development of a digital magnetic bearing control system as a replacement for the analog control systems supplied by the American company Magnetic Bearings Inc. (MBI). In 1992, NGTL's magnetic bearing research group formed the company [Revolve Technologies Inc ]. to commercialize the digital magnetic bearing technology. This firm was later purchased by SKF of Sweden. The French company S2M, founded in 1976, was the first to commercially market AMB’s. Extensive research on magnetic bearings continues at the University of Virginia in the Rotating Machinery and Controls Industrial Research Program .

Early U.S. Patents in AMB
align=left Inventor(s) Year Patent No. Invention Title

Beams, Holmes 1941 2,256,937 Suspension of Rotatable Bodies

Beams 1954 2,691,306 Magnetically Supported Rotating Bodies

Beams 1962 3,041,482 Apparatus for Rotating Freely Suspended Bodies

Beams 1965 3,196,694 Magnetic Suspension System

Wolf 1967 3,316,032 Poly-Phase Magnetic Suspension Transformer

Lyman 1971 3,565,495 Magnetic Suspension Apparatus

Habermann 1973 3,731,984 Magnetic Bearing Block Device for Supporting a Vertical Shaft Adapted for Rotating at High Speed

Habermann, Loyen, Joli, Aubert 1974 3,787,100 Devices Including Rotating Members Supported by Magnetic Bearings

Habermann, Brunet 1977 4,012,083 Magnetic Bearings

Habermann, Brunet, LeClére 1978 4,114,960 Radial Displacement Detector Device for a Magnetic Bearings


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