Cavitation is the formation of vapour cavities in a liquid – i.e. small liquid-free zones (“bubbles” or “voids”) – that are the consequence of forces acting upon the liquid. It usually occurs when a liquid is subjected to rapid changes of pressure that cause the formation of cavities where the pressure is relatively low. When subjected to higher pressure, the voids implode and can generate an intense shock wave.
Cavitation is a significant cause of wear in some engineering contexts. Collapsing voids that implode near to a metal surface cause cyclic stress through repeated implosion. This results in surface fatigue of the metal causing a type of wear also called “cavitation”. The most common examples of this kind of wear are to pump impellers, and bends where a sudden change in the direction of liquid occurs. Cavitation is usually divided into two classes of behavior: inertial (or transient) cavitation and non-inertial cavitation.
Inertial cavitation is the process where a void or bubble in a liquid rapidly collapses, producing a shock wave. Inertial cavitation occurs in nature in the strikes of mantis shrimps and pistol shrimps, as well as in the vascular tissues of plants. In man-made objects, it can occur in control valves pumps propellers and impellers.
Non-inertial cavitation is the process in which a bubble in a fluid is forced to oscillate in size or shape due to some form of energy input, such as an acoustic field. Such cavitation is often employed in ultrasonic cleaning baths and can also be observed in pumps, propellers, etc.
Since the shock waves formed by collapse of the voids are strong enough to cause significant damage to moving parts, cavitation is usually an undesirable phenomenon. It is very often specifically avoided in the design of machines such as turbines or propellers, and eliminating cavitation is a major field in the study of fluid dynamics. However, it is sometimes useful and does not cause damage when the bubbles collapse away from machinery, such as in supercavitation.