Choose the right seal ring material

Seal rings need to be chemically resistant, thermally conductive and wear resistant.

By Scott Boyson

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The most crucial part of a mechanical seal is the circle where rotary and stationary seal rings touch (see Figure 1). That's where the action occurs. A rubbing, frictional contact simultaneously generates heat and seals fluid. Selecting the right seal rings ensures reliability. They need to be hard, rigid, chemically resistant, thermally conductive, tough and wear resistant. Seal face combinations need to be optimized for the process fluid being sealed.

Figure 1. Single cartridge seal.

Carbon graphite

The most frequently used seal ring material is carbon graphite (see Figure 2). Most seal rings are molded individually. During the process, they undergo a series of changes that increases their hardness and density. Carbon graphite has excellent lubricating qualities and is suitable for a range of temperatures and corrosive environments.

Figure 2. Carbon graphite seal ring parts.

Seal rings of carbon graphite are self-lubricating. Rubbing against the opposite seal, they quickly lay down a microscopically thin, low-friction film of graphite that controls the temperature rise should the interface become dry during operation. But, film development requires the presence of water or other absorbable vapor. Carbon graphite with special impregnants is available for those rare applications that lack vapors such as cryogenic service or operation at high altitudes.

Many grades of carbon graphite are available. A common high-end carbon graphite material contains approximately 80 percent carbon, 20 percent graphite and less than one percent binder. It offers high strength, hardness and modulus of elasticity with a low permeability relative to the other grades. Seal faces with higher graphite content are used in split-seals. On the other hand, lower quality grades have a lower modulus of elasticity and will bend or distort easily under pressure. Also, these lower quality grades may contain impurities that can be attacked by the chemicals the seal is holding back.

Carbon graphite faces are compatible with nearly any chemical or combination of chemicals. However, carbon graphite should never be used with strong acids or oxidizing agents, both of which etch away the seal face surface.

Another concern is carbon blisteringthe formation of small, localized protuberances on the seal face. This condition is associated with the presence of hydrocarbons and cyclical temperature service. The physical mechanism behind blistering is not clear. The most popular explanation is that the carbon substrate absorbs process fluid, which frictional heat then expands, thus producing subsurface pressure and, eventually, a raised spot on the seal face.

Carbon has the lowest modulus of elasticity of any seal ring material, which explains the importance of designing seal rings to accommodate pressure and thermal distortion. Enhanced finite element techniques supported by extensive lab testing allow designers to optimize seal ring geometry to maintain face flatness under varying operating conditions.

Aluminum oxide ceramic

While an aluminum oxide ceramic seal ring exhibits high hardness and excellent chemical resistance, its thermal conductivity is low, which limits its ability to dissipate heat. This is especially problematic with dual cartridge seals, most of which rely on seal ring thermal conductivity to dissipate heat. Using ceramic seal rings raises the operating temperature, which reduces seal reliability. For this reason, ceramic no longer is popular for dual seals.

However, ceramic continues to be an ideal choice for split seal applications (see Figure 3). They are popular on low-pressure, water-based applications that have large amounts of fluid circulating inside the seal gland to provide cooling. When split seals are used on high-pressure applications such as boiler feed pumps, silicon carbide or other higher-performance material replaces ceramic. The 99.5-percent alumina grade is an ideal choice to minimize any concerns of chemical attack from impurities.

Figure 3. Ceramic seal ring parts

Tungsten carbide

Tungsten carbide, another common seal ring material, is made by heating tungsten carbide powder and a metallic binder to 2,700 F (1,500 C) to melt and fuse

the binder. This produces an extremely tough, hard ceramic-metal (cer-met), which has good abrasion resistance and is more dense than other seal ring materials (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Tungsten carbide seal ring and other parts.

Cobalt and nickel are the two metal binders used. A popular chemical-resistant tungsten carbide uses 6 percent to 10 percent nickel as a binder. Lower binder content increases hardness at the expense of toughness. In any case, check the chemical compatibility of nickel and cobalt when using tungsten carbide in strong acids, as these chemicals can attack binders, causing premature seal failure.

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