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Bearing Basics

The concept behind a bearing is very simple: Things roll better than they
slide. The wheels on your car are like big bearings. If you had something
like skis instead of wheels, your car would be a lot more difficult to push
down the road.
That is because when things slide, the friction between them causes a
force that tends to slow them down. But if the two surfaces can roll over
each other, the friction is greatly reduced.
Bearings reduce friction by providing smooth metal balls or rollers, and a
smooth inner and outer metal surface for the balls to roll against. These
balls or rollers "bear" the load, allowing the device to spin smoothly.
Bearing Loads
Bearings typically have to deal with two kinds of loading, radial and
thrust. Depending on where the bearing is being used, it may see all
radial loading, all thrust loading or a combination of both.
The bearings that support the shafts of motors and pulleys
are subject to a radial load.
The bearings in the electric motor and the pulley pictured above face only
a radial load. In this case, most of the load comes from the tension in the
belt connecting the two pulleys.
The bearings in this stool are subject to a thrust load.
The bearing above is like the one in a barstool. It is loaded purely in
thrust, and the entire load comes from the weight of the person sitting on
the stool.
The bearings in a car wheel are subject to both thrust and
radial loads.
The bearing above is like the one in the hub of your car wheel. This
bearing has to support both a radial load and a thrust load. The radial load
comes from the weight of the car; the thrust load comes from the
cornering forces when you go around a turn.
Types of Bearings
There are many types of bearings, each used for different purposes. These
include ball bearings, roller bearings, ball thrust bearings, roller thrust
bearings and tapered roller thrust bearings.
Ball Bearings
Ball bearings, as shown below, are probably the most common type of
bearing. They are found in everything from inline skates to hard drives.
These bearings can handle both radial and thrust loads, and are usually
found in applications where the load is relatively small.
Cutaway view of a ball bearing
In a ball bearing, the load is transmitted from the outer race to the ball
and from the ball to the inner race. Since the ball is a sphere, it only
contacts the inner and outer race at a very small point, which helps it spin
very smoothly. But it also means that there is not very much contact area
holding that load, so if the bearing is overloaded, the balls can deform or
squish, ruining the bearing.
Roller Bearings
Roller bearings like the one illustrated below are used in applications like
conveyer belt rollers, where they must hold heavy radial loads. In these
bearings, the roller is a cylinder, so the contact between the inner and
outer race is not a point but a line. This spreads the load out over a larger
area, allowing the bearing to handle much greater loads than a ball
bearing. However, this type of bearing is not designed to handle much
thrust loading.
A variation of this type of bearing, called a needle bearing, uses cylinders
with a very small diameter. This allows the bearing to fit into tight places.
Cutaway view of a roller bearing
Ball Thrust Bearing
Ball thrust bearings like the one shown below are mostly used for low-
speed applications and cannot handle much radial load. Barstools and
Lazy Susan turntables use this type of bearing.
Ball thrust bearing
Roller Thrust Bearing
Roller thrust bearings like the one illustrated below can support large
thrust loads. They are often found in gear sets like car transmissions
between gears, and between the housing and the rotating shafts. The
helical gears used in most transmissions have angled teeth -- this causes a
thrust load that must be supported by a bearing.
Roller thrust bearing
Tapered Roller Bearings
Tapered roller bearings can support large radial and large thrust loads.
Cutaway view of (left) a spherical roller thrust
bearing and (right) a radial tapered roller bearing
Tapered roller bearings are used in car hubs, where they are usually
mounted in pairs facing opposite directions so that they can handle thrust
in both directions.
Some Interesting Uses
There are several types of bearings, and each has its own interesting uses,
including magnetic bearings and giant roller bearings.
Magnetic Bearings
Some very high-speed devices like advanced flywheel energy storage
systems, use magnet bearings. These bearings allow the flywheel to float
on a magnetic field created by the bearing.
Some of the flywheels run at speeds in excess of 50,000 revolutions per
minute (rpm). Normal bearings with rollers or balls would melt down or
explode at these speeds. The magnetic bearing has no moving parts, so it
can handle these incredible speeds.
Giant Roller Bearings
Probably the first use of a bearing was back when the Egyptians were
building the pyramids. They put round logs under the heavy stones so that
they could roll them to the building site. This method is still used today
when large, very heavy objects like the Cape Hatter's lighthouse need to
be moved.
Earthquake-Proof Buildings
The new San Francisco International Airport uses many advanced
building technologies to help it withstand earthquakes. One of these
technologies involves giant ball bearings.