Centrifuges are one of the most important tools in industrial processing. These machines – which use rotating force to separate liquids and sediments – have numerous uses. Modern centrifuges are used for wastewater processing, biofuels production, and for food purification, to name a few.
Yet, centrifuges are not a new invention, and they have been used for various industrial applications since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
In fact, in the early 1700s, a crude whirling arm machine was developed by English engineer Benjamin Robins to test drag for the British military. This was one of the first centrifuge-type machines to hit the market, and Robins’ invention sparked the race to develop more effective rotating machines.
Early Centrifugal Machines
Filtration and sediment removing systems have long been used by humans to purify liquids. Yet, before the introduction this was generally accomplished by gravity. To separate cream from milk, for example, the raw milk would sit for long periods of time, so that the lighter cream would rise to the surface for skimming.
Early centrifuges were developed to speed up this process. In 1864, for example, one of the first dairy centrifuges was developed, which used a hand-crank spinner to separate the cream from the milk. Inventor Gustaf de Laval introduced a steam-operated, 4,000 rpm centrifugal milk separator in 1877, which helped enabled large-scale dairy processing.
Centrifugal Advancements in the 1900s
In the early 1900s, major centrifugal advances led to medical breakthroughs. For example, in the 1920s, Swedish chemist Theodor Svedberg developed an ultracentrifuge – which could reach 900,000 g – that enabled researchers to precisely weigh proteins. Ultimately, Svedberg won the Nobel Prize for his invention.
Improved centrifugal techniques came in the 1930s and 1940s, including the ability to isolate viruses. One early inventor Edward Pickels, for example, ultimately launched Specialised Instruments Corp (Spinco) in the late 1940s; the company would go on to develop a centrifuge capable of 40,000 rpm.
Modern Centrifugal Technology
From the 1950s to the present day, centrifugal techniques and innovations have advanced rapidly. In the 1950s, for example, electronic motors were standardised, enabling faster rotations and revolutions.
Different types of centrifuges were also introduced and adapted for industrial use during this period. The two types of modern industrial centrifuges, including filtration and sedimentation centrifuges, became available, helping industrial filtering. To date, there are more than 200 industrial applications for centrifuges. The Interfill IC45-AV, for example is a high speed centrifuge used across many industries for any type of solid and liquid separation.
In food processing, centrifuges are used for purifying olive oil and separating the oil from solids and other contaminants. Modern fuels and biofuels processing requires filtration centrifuges to purify the fuel, and finally centrifugal systems are used in wastewater treatment to remove solids and microscopic waste from treated water.
All of these industrial applications are based on those early innovations, and they continue to advance.