How does a standard water pump work? — ML, Wilmington, NC
The water pumps in most cars are centrifugal pumps. These pumps work by spinning water around in a circle inside a cylindrical pump housing. The pump makes the water spin by pushing it with an impeller. The blades of this impeller project outward from an axle like the arms of turnstile and, as the impeller spins, the water spins with it. As the water spins, the pressure near the outer edge of the pump housing becomes much higher than near the center of the impeller. There are many ways to understand this rise in pressure, and here are two:
First, you can view the water between the impeller blades as an object traveling in a circle. Objects don’t naturally travel in a circle—they need an inward force to cause them to accelerate inward as they spin. Without such an inward force, an object will travel in a straight line and won’t complete the circle. In a centrifugal pump, that inward force is provided by high-pressure water near the outer edge of the pump housing. The water at the edge of the pump pushes inward on the water between the impeller blades and makes it possible for that water to travel in a circle. The water pressure at the edge of the turning impeller rises until it’s able to keep water circling with the impeller blades.
You can also view the water as an incompressible fluid, one that obeys Bernoulli’s equation in the appropriate contexts. As water drifts outward between the impeller blades of the pump, it must move faster and faster because its circular path is getting larger and larger. The impeller blades do work on the water so it moves faster and faster. By the time the water has reached the outer edge of the impeller, it’s moving quite fast. But when the water leaves the impeller and arrives at the outer edge of the cylindrical pump housing, it slows down. Here is where Bernoulli’s equation figures in. As the water slows down and its kinetic energy decreases, that water’s pressure potential energy increases (to conserve energy). Thus the slowing is accompanied by a pressure rise. That’s why the water pressure at the outer edge of the pump housing is higher than the water pressure near the center of the impeller.
When water is actively flowing through the pump, arriving through a hole near the center of the impeller and leaving through a hole near the outer edge of the pump housing, the pressure rise between center and edge of the pump isn’t as large. However, this pressure rise never completely disappears and it’s what propels the water through the car’s cooling system.