A turbomolecular pump is a type of vacuum pump, superficially similar to a turbopump, used to obtain and maintain high vacuum. These pumps work on the principle that gas molecules can be given momentum in a desired direction by repeated collision with a moving solid surface. In a turbopump, a rapidly spinning turbine rotor 'hits' gas molecules from the inlet of the pump towards the exhaust in order to create or maintain a vacuum.
Because of the relative motion of rotor and stator, molecules preferably hit the lower side of the blades. Because the blade surface looks down, most of the scattered molecules will leave it downwards. The surface is rough, so no reflection will occur. A blade needs to be thick and stable for high pressure operation and as thin as possible and slightly bent for maximum compression. For high compression ratios the throat between adjacent rotor blades (as shown in the image) is pointing as much as possible in the forward direction. For high flow rates the blades are at 45° and reach close to the axis.
Because the compression of each stage is ~10, each stage closer to the outlet is considerably smaller than the preceding inlet stages. This has two consequences. The geometric progression tells us that infinite stages could ideally fit into a finite axial length. The finite length in this case is the full height of the housing as the bearings, the motor, and controller and some of the coolers can be installed inside on the axis. Radially, to grasp as much of the thin gas at the entrance, the inlet-side rotors would ideally have a larger radius, and correspondingly higher centrifugal force; ideal blades would get exponentially thinner towards their tips and carbon fibers should reinforce the aluminium blades. However, because the average speed of a blade affects pumping so much this is done by increasing the root diameter rather than the tip diameter where practical.
Turbomolecular pumps must operate at very high speeds, and the friction heat buildup imposes design limitations. Some turbomolecular pumps use magnetic bearings to reduce friction and oil contamination. Because the magnetic bearings and the temperature cycles allow for only a finite clearance between rotor and stator, the blades at the high pressure stages are somewhat degenerated into a single helical foil each. Laminar flow cannot be used for pumping, because laminar turbines stall when not used at the designed flow. The pump can be cooled down to improve the compression, but should not be so cold as to condense ice on the blades. When a turbopump is stopped, the oil from the backing vacuum may backstream through the turbopump and contaminate the chamber. One way to prevent this is to introduce a laminar flow of nitrogen through the pump. The transition from vacuum to nitrogen and from a running to a still turbopump has to be synchronized precisely to avoid mechanical stress to the pump and overpressure at the exhaust. A thin membrane and a valve at the exhaust should be added to protect the turbopump from excessive back pressure (e.g. after a power failure or leaks in the backing vacuum). The rotor is stabilized in all of its six degrees of freedom. One degree is governed by the electric motor. Minimally, this degree must be stabilized electronically (or by a diamagnetic material, which is too unstable to be used in a precision pump bearing). Another way (ignoring losses in magnetic cores at high frequencies) is to construct this bearing is to see it as an axis with a sphere at each end. These spheres are inside hollow static spheres. On the surfaces of all spheres are checkerboard patterns of inwards and outwards going magnetic field lines. As the checkerboard pattern of the static spheres is rotated, the rotor rotates. In this construction no axis is made stable on the cost of making another axis unstable, but all axes are neutral and the electronic regulation is less stressed and will be more dynamically stable. Hall effect sensors can be used to sense the rotational position and the other degrees of freedom can be measured capacitively.
At atmospheric pressure the mean free path of air is about 70 nm. Turbomolecular blades cannot be built with anything close to such a small clearance, so this type of pump stalls if exhausted directly to the atmosphere. Nonetheless Varian, Inc. since 2006 offers a pump where the last stages have blades optimized for zero flow and can pump against a pressure of one atmosphere. Because the low pressure stages are limiting the flow, the high pressure stages can be fixed to zero flow. Theoretically centrifugal pumps could be used, but it is more compact to use a circulating flow between hollow threads in the rotor and the stator. In other cases the exhaust is connected to a backing pump, which produces a pressure low enough for the turbomolecular pump to work efficiently. Typically, this pressure must be below 10 Pa with 1-2 Pa as common averages.
The turbomolecular pump can be a very versatile pump. It can generate many degrees of vacuum from intermediate vacuum (~10-2 Pa) up to ultra-high vacuum levels (~10-8 Pa).
Multiple turbomolecular pumps in a lab or manufacturing-plant can be connected by tubes to a small backing pump. Automatic valves and diffusion pump like injection into a large buffer-tube in front of the backing pump prevents any overpressure from one pump to stall another pump.
An additional drawback stems from the high rotor speed of this type of pump: very high grade bearings are required, which increase the cost.
Because turbomolecular pumps only work in molecular flow conditions, a pure turbomolecular pump will require a very large backing pump to work effectively. Thus, many modern pumps have a molecular drag stage such as a Holweck or Gaede mechanism near the exhaust to reduce the size of backing pump required.
The turbomolecular pump was invented in 1958 by Becker, based on the older molecular drag pumps developed by Gaede in 1913, Holweck in 1923 and Siegbahn in 1944.