A magnetic bearing is a bearing which supports a load using magnetic levitation. Magnetic bearings support moving machinery without physical contact, for example, they can levitate a rotating shaft and permit relative motion without friction or wear. They are in service in such industrial applications as electric power generation, petroleum refining, machine tool operation and natural gas pipelines. They are also used in the Zippe-type centrifuge used for uranium enrichment.
It is difficult to build a magnetic bearing using permanent magnets due to the limitations imposed by Earnshaw's theorem, and techniques using diamagnetic materials are relatively undeveloped. As a result, most magnetic bearings require continuous power input and an active control system to hold the load stable. Because of this complexity, the magnetic bearings also typically require some kind of back-up bearing in case of power or control system failure.
However with the use of an induction based levitation system present in cutting edge MAGLEV technologies, magnetic bearings could do away with complex control systems by using Halbach Arrays and simple closed loop coils.
An active magnetic bearing (AMB) consists of an electromagnet assembly, a set of power amplifiers which supply current to the electromagnets, a controller, and gap sensors with associated electronics to provide the feedback required to control the position of the rotor within the gap. These elements are shown in the diagram. The power amplifiers supply equal bias current to two pairs of electromagnets on opposite sides of a rotor. This constant tug-of-war is mediated by the controller which offsets the bias current by equal but opposite perturbations of current as the rotor deviates by a small amount from its center position.
The gap sensors are usually inductive in nature and sense in a differential mode. The power amplifiers in a modern commercial application are solid state devices which operate in a pulse width modulation (PWM) configuration. The controller is usually a microprocessor or DSP.