Oil-free micro turbomachinery (OFT) implements compliant foil bearings because of their minute drag and ability to operate in extreme (high or low) temperature. Prominent to date, bump-type foil bearings integrate an underspring thin metal structure that provides resilience and material damping; and while the rotor is airborne, acts in series with the stiffness and damping of the gas film. The design and manufacturing of foil bearings remains costly as it demands of extensive engineering and actual experience. Alternative foil bearing configurations, less costly and easier to manufacture, are highly desirable to enable widespread usage of OFT. This manuscript details the design and manufacturing of a novel Rayleigh-step metal mesh foil thrust bearing (MMFTB) as well as its testing on a dedicated rig. Metal mesh structures offer significant material structural damping and can be easily procured at a fraction of the cost of a typical bump foil strip layer.

The MMFTB consists of a solid carrier, a number of stacked annular Copper mesh sheets (wire diameter = 0.25, 0.3 and 0.41 mm), and a steel top foil (0.127 mm thick) that makes six pads (ID = 50.8 mm, OD = 2 ID), each 45° in extent. A 3 μm polymer coats each pad and a photo-chemical process etches a step 20 μm in height. Static and dynamic load measurements (without rotor speed) demonstrate the MMFTB has structural stiffness and material damping similar to that of a publicized bump-type foil thrust bearing. A maiden test of the MMFTB with rotor speed of Ω = 15 krpm (∼80 m/s at bearing outer diameter) proved briefly the bearing operation when applying a tiny thrust load. Further tests with ambient air, a rotor speed of 40 krpm (∼212 m/s at bearing OD), and a very light load/area < 7 kPa failed several of the prototype bearings, all exhibiting significant wear on one or more pads. The source of the failure is the inherent unevenness of the metal mesh stacked substructures, thus causing the pads to bulge towards the rotor collar surface before a load applies. A deficient anchoring method exacerbates the unevenness. Incidentally, a high rotor speed induced large windage that lifted the top foils pushing them against the spinning collar. As the bearing moved towards the rotating collar to begin applying thrust, the local high spots rubbed against the collar, before a hydrodynamic wedge could form to separate the surfaces. Without a robust sacrificial coating, metal-to-metal contact quickly disfigured the contacting top foil pads, erasing the etched step, and leading to failure.

In concept, and on paper, the mesh sheets and the top foil lay flat against the bearing carrier, giving a false sense of uniformity in the design process. In actuality, a designer must consider the manufactured states of the individual components and how they assemble. A redesign of the bearing intends to overcome the existing flaws (highlighted herein) by incorporating a thicker top foil that is well anchored (to better withstand the effects of windage), a robust sacrificial coating, and a hydrodynamic wedge accomplished via a circumferential taper on each pad.

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