Hydraulics 101

Andres Onu
Readability
7.99

How does this align with my curriculum?

Hydraulics power many of the large machines you see around you.

You pass a construction site and see large machinery busy on the job. Engines drone along. Suddenly, there’s a load roar. Machines lift tons of earth and steel. How can these machines do this so easily? Because hydraulic power does the lifting.

Cranes at construction site use hydraulic power
Cranes at a construction site use hydraulic power (Source: baphotte via iStockphoto).

Hydraulics allow machines to transmit force from one point to another using an incompressible fluid. In most cases, this also increases the force applied at one end for a given amount of effort.

Hydraulics work on the same principle as the mechanical lever, a simple machine that functions like a seesaw. If one end of the lever is pushed down, the other end moves up. If the lever is well designed, then a machine can lift a very heavy object without much effort. This is especially true when the lever’s fulcrum is close to its load.  

If the fulcrum of a lever is close to the load, even a small force can lift a large mass
If the fulcrum of a lever is close to the load, even a small force can lift a large mass (Source: CR [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons).

A hydraulic cylinder, however, has major advantages over a mechanical lever. Let’s look at how a hydraulic cylinder works.

How does a hydraulic cylinder work? 

In a hydraulic device, a hose or pipe connects a cylinder with a small diameter to a cylinder with a large diameter. Within the pipe is the non-compressible fluid. By applying a force to the small cylinder, a much greater force is applied to the large cylinder. The force, in this case, is multiplied by an amount equal to the difference in the area of the cylinder.

How a hydraulic cylinder works
How a hydraulic cylinder works (©2020 Let’s Talk Science).

When a cylinder of a diameter A1 applies a force of F1, it travels a distance of d1. The cylinder connected to it with a diameter of A2 will exert a force of F2 and travel a distance of d2.

Because the force is greater, the distance that the large cylinder moves will be smaller. Remember that Work is equal to the force applied multiplied by the distance travelled (W=fd).

The setup of a hydraulic system can allow machines to do some amazing things. You can connect two cylinders with pipes or a flexible hose across a long distance. This lets you put the first cylinder in one room, and the second cylinder in another part of a building, easily transmitting the force around corners or through walls. 

Hydraulics are often used for moving parts of mechanical systems that need to lift or push heavy objects. The landing gear in an aircraft use several hydraulic cylinders to move the wheels into place and to cushion the aircraft's landing.

A350 Landing gear Test Filton (2014) by Leaderlive (2:09). Can you spot the hydraulic cylinders?

What is a hydraulic power unit? 

In simple hydraulic systems, the small cylinder has to move a much larger distance than the large cylinder. That means the small cylinder is limited in the distance it can push or pull. To make a hydraulic system even more powerful, the small cylinder can be replaced with a pump. This creates something that works like the small cylinder, but with an infinite “travel distance.” The pump continues to draw fluid out of a reservoir and pushes the big cylinder until the reservoir is empty. These hydraulic power units (HPUs) are installed on construction equipment and heavy lifting rigs. Most large airplanes have HPUs to move the flaps on wings and rudders. A single HPU can feed dozens of cylinders, limited only by the pump power and reservoir capacity.

What are hydraulic fluids?

The choice of the fluid inside the hydraulic system is important as it flows under tremendous pressure, easily thousands of psi (pounds per square inch).

Did you know? 

The SI-based unit of pressure is the Pascal (Pa). 1 psi = 6894.76 Pa.

Hydraulic oils are specially formulated so that they function consistently across wide pressure and temperature ranges. Also, gases do not dissolve into them. This is important because dissolved gases form bubbles under certain conditions, which can create problems.

Did you know? 

Hydraulic and pneumatic systems are similar. Hydraulic systems use fluids under pressure, while pneumatic systems use gases. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

Hidden Hydraulics 

Hydraulic components are often hidden on machinery. Cars use hydraulics to stop four tonnes of steel with a light press of your foot (with the help of the brake booster). Manufacturing and shipping businesses use robots that can lift and move packaging and other parts using hydraulic-powered arms.

How to Make Lift Car from Cardboard Hydraulic Powered Robotic (2018) by Mr. Green (3:25) *No sound

Hydraulics are all around you! The next time you notice a lot of work done with ease, see if you can spot the hydraulic systems.

Did you know? 

An airplane engine may require as much power as two or three cars to start up its hydraulic system because of the high pressure needed.

 

Starting Points

Connecting and Relating

  • How many machines which use hydraulics can you name? List them.
  • Have you ever seen a hydraulic machine in operation? What was it and what task was it doing?
  • If you can drive, have you ever driven a vehicle without power steering? Does the car that you or your parents are driving have power steering? How does the driving experience of driving with or without power steering differ?

Connecting and Relating

  • How many machines which use hydraulics can you name? List them.
  • Have you ever seen a hydraulic machine in operation? What was it and what task was it doing?
  • If you can drive, have you ever driven a vehicle without power steering? Does the car that you or your parents are driving have power steering? How does the driving experience of driving with or without power steering differ?

Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment

  • Power steering is a technology that is based on the application of specific scientific knowledge. Explain how science, technology and society are interconnected using power steering as an example.
  •  A syringe is a hydraulic device. Explain how a syringe operates.

Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment

  • Power steering is a technology that is based on the application of specific scientific knowledge. Explain how science, technology and society are interconnected using power steering as an example.
  •  A syringe is a hydraulic device. Explain how a syringe operates.

Exploring Concepts

  • What are the advantages of hydraulic systems? What are some of the disadvantages?
  • Research hydraulic fluids and how they are made.
  • Investigate the application of hydraulics in the operation and function of different types of machinery, equipment and/or vehicles.

Exploring Concepts

  • What are the advantages of hydraulic systems? What are some of the disadvantages?
  • Research hydraulic fluids and how they are made.
  • Investigate the application of hydraulics in the operation and function of different types of machinery, equipment and/or vehicles.

Teaching Suggestions

  • This article could be used to introduce the topic of hydraulics and provide examples of technology that has been developed using the principles of hydraulics.
  • After reading the article students could complete a Key Ideas Round Robin activity. Students first summarize the key ideas from the article, then form pairs and finally groups of four to negotiate the key idea gained from the article. The ready-to-use key Ideas Round Robin reproducible can be found in [Google doc] and [.pdf] formats.
  • Students could debate the pros and cons of using hydraulic power versus mechanical power using a Pros & Cons Organizer. The ready-to-use Pros & Cons reproducible can be found in [Google doc] and [.pdf] formats.

Teaching Suggestions

  • This article could be used to introduce the topic of hydraulics and provide examples of technology that has been developed using the principles of hydraulics.
  • After reading the article students could complete a Key Ideas Round Robin activity. Students first summarize the key ideas from the article, then form pairs and finally groups of four to negotiate the key idea gained from the article. The ready-to-use key Ideas Round Robin reproducible can be found in [Google doc] and [.pdf] formats.
  • Students could debate the pros and cons of using hydraulic power versus mechanical power using a Pros & Cons Organizer. The ready-to-use Pros & Cons reproducible can be found in [Google doc] and [.pdf] formats.

Learn more

Hydraulic Press Channel Trailer (2017)

A video (1:21 min.) from a YouTube channel dedicated to crushing things with a powerful press. Videos on the channel may contain occasional inappropriate language.

Principles of Hydraulics Explained (1936)

A clear, retro video (7:14 min.) from the Jam Handy Organization about at the basics of hydraulics as it applies to the "modern" automobile. (7:14)

Hydraulic Battle: Plunge into hydraulics with a pair of dueling syringes

Try your hand at hydraulics with two syringes and a bowl of water with this activity by Exploratorium.

Hydraulic Arm 

Learn to build your own hydraulic arm with this Exploratorium activity.

 

References

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2016). Hydraulic power

Hodanbosi, C. (1996). Pascal's principle and hydraulics. NASA.

Casey, B. (2009). Why hydraulic oil is different. Machinery Lubrication.

Cosford, J. (2014, March 20). Hydraulics and pneumatics: The big battle. Mobile Hydraulic Tips.

Orwell, M. (n.d.). What is a hydraulic power pack? Sciencing.