Manufacturers in a wide range of industries will often utilize vacuum chambers in various phases of their product development and manufacturing processes. The size of a vacuum chamber is typically based on the application and can vary greatly, from smaller benchtop chambers used to test miniature components and objects, to larger chambers able to encompass objects of a much larger nature.
Understanding the different ways vacuum chambers can be used in manufacturing can help companies incorporate or improve the use of vacuum chambers in their processes to help ensure a better, more consistent, and reliable final product.
Vacuum chambers work by removing air and gases from a vessel or chamber through a vacuum pump, creating a vacuum, which is defined as a space completely devoid of matter. It’s important to note that creating a vacuum is NOT a “sucking” process. A molecule is only removed from a chamber when it enters the pump via random collisions. It is a common mistake to think a vacuum pump sucks gas from a chamber. Until a molecule, propelled by random collisions, enters the pumping mechanism of a pump, it cannot be removed from the chamber. The pump does not reach out, grab a molecule from the chamber, and suck it in.
Pressure can be controlled by limiting the removal of gas from the chamber or by metering gas into the chamber at the time of pumping. All vacuum chambers are subject to small amounts of atmospheric leakage -- how much leakage occurs is known as the “leak-up rate.” In order to maintain the desired pressure inside the chamber, it may be necessary to continue pumping at some level to offset the leak-up rate.
Only a few materials can be used for making a vacuum chamber because of specific property requirements such as thickness, resistivity, and permeability, among others. The most common high-density materials used to create vacuum chambers are brass, glass, acrylic, hard steel, stainless steel, mild steel, and aluminum.
Vacuum chamber design is determined by the industry and application for which it is used. For example, a chamber used for environmental, or materials testing might be quite different from a chamber used in large-scale manufacturing. There are many variables that can be taken into consideration to enable access, viewing, instrumentation, and temperature control. Some component design options include:
In addition to standard porting and instrumentation options, chamber customization enables another level of design configuration to accommodate even the most esoteric applications. For example, double-wall, water-cooled chambers can be specified to provide consistent circulation throughout the chamber for excellent internal temperature uniformity.
Vacuum chambers, when combined with a variety of optional accessories, can be used for a wide range of applications in which specific atmospheric or environmental conditions must be created. Some of the most common uses include:
Plasma treatment of materials in a vacuum chamber improves the ability to activate, clean, etch and deposit as part of a manufacturing process. By applying plasma treatment in a vacuum chamber, manufacturers can evenly treat materials.
Outgassing or drying materials - Lowering the pressure in a vacuum chamber affects the vapor pressure of fluids, changing them from a liquid to a gas. This phase change in material enables a liquid to be removed from material. It’s often used in drying food products or removing moisture from water-damaged items.
High altitude simulation - As altitude increases, air pressure decreases. By carefully controlling the amount of air in a vacuum chamber, conditions at specific altitudes can be created, enabling high altitude simulation for testing products and materials to be used in the aerospace or aeronautics industries.
Composite component manufacturing or casting utilize vacuum chambers to ensure uniform mixing of materials and to outgas or degas glues, adhesives, and epoxies to eliminate air bubbles in hard-curing materials.
Laser research creates vacuums in beam chambers to remove any particles that might disrupt the laser beam path.
Vacuum storage - Materials sensitive to moisture or other atmospheric conditions can be stored in a vacuum to avoid damage.
Remove unwanted odor from a material - Odors are created by vapors or gases emitted by a material. Introducing the material into a low pressure vacuum system accelerates vapor or gas emission leaving little to no liquid or source of the odor.
The use of a vacuum chamber to enhance, accelerate, or modify an action or reaction is often utilized to improve a process or procedure. Manufacturers and research teams with insight into the capabilities and characteristics of a material that can be improved by applying a vacuum can gain a significant competitive advantage in their respective markets.
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