How does an air pump work and how does the air pocket in a Nike Air or Reebok pu…

How does an air pump work and how does the air pocket in a Nike Air or Reebok pump shoe keep its form? — MD, Toronto, CA

A typical bicycle pump uses a piston to squeeze air that it has trapped inside a cylinder. As you push the piston into the cylinder, the trapped air molecules are packed more tightly together and their pressure rises. Moreover, because you are transferring energy to the air by doing mechanical work on it, the air’s temperature also rises. Air always accelerates toward regions of lower pressure, so this pressurized air will tend to flow through any opening that leads to lower pressure—such as the inside of an underinflated bicycle tire. A one-way valve at the base of the cylinder allows this pressurized air to flow out of the cylinder through a pipe and enter the bicycle tire. Thus each time you push down on the piston, you pressurize the air inside the cylinder and it accelerates and flows toward the lower pressure inside the bicycle tire. As you pull the piston out of the cylinder, a second one-way valve allows new air to enter the cylinder from outside so that you can repeat this process.

In a pumped air athletic shoe, squeezing a rubber bulb packs together air molecules and increases their pressure. When the pressure is high enough, a one-way valve allows this pressurized air to flow into the underinflated air pocket of the shoe. A second one-way valve allows the bulb to refill with outside air when you stop squeezing the bulb. Once the air pocket has been filled with large numbers of air molecules, these molecules exert substantial outward forces on the inner surfaces of that air pocket. The more molecules there are inside the pocket, the more often they collide with the surfaces and the more force they exert on those surfaces. These outward forces from the air molecules allow the air pocket keeps its shape.

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