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An airlift pump is a pump that has low suction and moderate discharge of liquid and entrained solids. The pump injects compressed air at the bottom of the discharge pipe which is immersed in the liquid. The compressed air mixes with the liquid causing the air-water mixture to be less dense than the rest of the liquid around it and therefore is displaced upwards through the discharge pipe by the surrounding liquid of higher density. Solids may be entrained in the flow and if small enough to fit through the pipe, will be discharged with the rest of the flow at a shallower depth or above the surface. Airlift pumps are widely used in aquaculture to pump, circulate and aerate water in closed, recirculating systems and ponds. Other applications include dredging, underwater archaeology, salvage operations and collection of scientific specimens.
The only energy required is provided by compressed air. This air is usually compressed by a compressor or a blower. The air is injected in the lower part of a pipe that transports a liquid. By buoyancy the air, which has a lower density than the liquid, rises quickly. By fluid pressure, the liquid is taken in the ascendant air flow and moves in the same direction as the air. The calculation of the volume flow of the liquid is possible thanks to the physics of two-phase flow.
Airlift pumps are often used in deep dirty wells where sand would quickly abrade mechanical parts. (The compressor is on the surface and no mechanical parts are needed in the well). However airlift wells must be much deeper than the water table to allow for submergence. Air is generally pumped at least as deep under the water as the water is to be lifted. (If the water table is 50 ft below, the air should be pumped 100 feet deep).
It is also sometimes used in part of the process on a wastewater treatment plant if a small head is required (typically around 1 foot head).
The first airlift pump is considered to be invented by the German engineer Carl Emanuel Löscher in 1797.
A recent (2007) variant called the "geyser pump" can pump with greater suction and less air. It also pumps proportionally to the air flow, permitting use in processes that require varying controlled flows. It arranges to store up the air, and release it in large bubbles that seal to the lift pipe, raising slugs of fluid.
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