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2.

Laminar Flowmeters
R. SIEV

(1969)

B. G. LIPTK

(1995)

FI

J. B. ARANT

Flow Sheet Symbol

(1982, 2003)

Design Pressure

Up to 5000 PSIG (34 MPa)

Design Temperature

Up to 300F (150C) normally, but can be higher with special designs

Material of Construction

Stainless steel, aluminum, or any alloy available in small bore tubing

Fluids

Liquids and gases

Flow Range

0.0001 to 2000 scfm for gases (3 cm /min to 57 m /min)


3
0.0003 to 10 GPM for liquids (1 cm /min to 38 l/min)

Inaccuracy

0.5% to 1% of actual flow for commercial gas flow elements, if calibrated

Flow Turndown

10:1 minimum

Flow Characteristic

Linear to approximately linear

Costs

A 1/2-in. (13 mm) stainless-steel laminar flow element costs $700, a 2-in. (50 mm)
unit costs $1500, and a 16-in. (300 mm) all-stainless unit costs $11,000. The differentialpressure readout devices are additional to the above element costs.

Partial List of Suppliers

Aalborg Instruments & Controls (www.aalborg.com)


Alicat Scientific, ATC (www.alicatscientific.com)
Chell Instruments Ltd. (UK), Hastings (www.chell.co.uk)
CME, A Division of Aerospace Control Products (www.cmeflow.com)
Matheson Tri-Gas (www.matheson-trigas.com)
Meriam Instrument Division of Scott Fetzer (www.meriam.com)
National Instruments (www.ni.com)
Universal Flow Monitors Inc. (www.flowmeter.com)

Laminar flowmeters fill a special need in flow measurement


where the requirements might include low to extremely low
flow rates, linear calibration and low noise, the ability to
measure high-viscosity liquids, or steady low-flow repeatability and control accuracy. Laminar flowmeters are
intended for very low flow rates where other types of meters
are either marginal in performance or cannot be used at all.
Laminar flowmeters can be constructed by various methods,
but the most common is with capillary tubes. Hence, the
terms laminar flowmeter and capillary flowmeter are virtually
synonymous. Proprietary commercial units use other matrix
shapes and are intended for use with gases (Figure 2.9a).
Where gas is metered, it is preferable to use calibrated commercial units instead of undertaking the design of a laminar
flowmeter.
The flowmeter consists of the laminar flow element and
a differential-pressure measuring instrument. While the flow

is theoretically linear with pressure drop, in practice, some


nonlinearities are often encountered. In most cases, these are
of little consequence.
The theory for laminar flowmeters is based on the
HagenPoiseuille Law for laminar flow and the Reynolds
number as a means of defining the type of flow. Both are
required to investigate and design a laminar flow element.
More detailed explanations and discussions of theory can be
found in any standard textbook on fluid mechanics.

THEORY
Fluid flow in pipes and tubes is characterized by a nondimensional number called the Reynolds number (Re). Up to
approximately Re 2000, the flow is called laminar, viscous, or
streamline. Above 10,000, the flow is called fully developed
201

2003 by Bla Liptk

202

Flow Measurement

FIG. 2.9a
The laminar flowmeter and its matrix element with miniature triangular duct passage with under 0.1-mm effective diameters. (Courtesy of
Meriam Instrument Div. of Scott Fetzer Co.)

turbulent. The region between 2000 and 10,000, where the


flow is shifting from laminar to turbulent, is not clearly
defined but is called transitional. Generally, laminar flow
elements are restricted to numbers under 2000 and, most
commonly, well below 1200. Certain methods will enable a
capillary element to be used satisfactorily up to Re 15,000
with a modest sacrifice in error and linearity.
Reynolds number is defined by the following equations:

TABLE 2.9b
Gas Properties under the Standard Conditions of 29.92 in
of Mercury and 70F (760 mm of Mercury and 21C)
Gas

For liquid flow,

Re =

where
Re =
=
Q=
D=
=
W=

6.32W
50.7 Q
or Re =
D
D

2.9(1)

Density (lb/ft )

Viscosity,
Micropoise

Specific
Gravity

Air

0.0749

181.87

1.000

Argon

0.1034

225.95

1.380

Helium

0.0103

193.9

Hydrogen

0.0052

88.41

0.0695

Nitrogen

0.0725

175.85

0.968

Oxygen

0.0828

203.47

1.105

Carbon dioxide

0.1143

146.87

1.526

0.138

where
SG = specific gravity relative to air (Table 2.9b)
P = flowing gas pressure in inches of mercury absolute
P = differential pressure in inches of water
m = viscosity of the flowing gas in micropoise
(Table 2.9b)

Reynolds number
3
density (lb/ft ) at flowing temperature
flow rate (gal/min)
internal tube diameter (in.)
viscosity of flowing temperature (centipoise)
flow rate (lb/h)

HagenPoiseuille Law
For gas flow,

Re =

6.32 Q
D

or

Re =

6.32W
D

2.9(2)

where

= density at standard conditions (lb/ft )


Q = flow rate (scfh)
Other units = as defined for liquid
3

For the laminar flowmeter shown in Figure 2.9a, the


Reynolds number is limited to a range of 150 to 300 and is
calculated as
Re = 228( SG)( P)( P)/ m

2003 by Bla Liptk

2.9(3)

Once the tube inside diameter required to give laminar flow


according to the Reynolds number calculation has been
defined, the length of the capillary has to be determined to
design the laminar flowmeter system. These equations are as
follows.
For liquid flow,
L = 1.5876 103

PD4
Q

2.9(4)

or
L=

PD4
7.86 10 5 W

2.9(5)

2.9 Laminar Flowmeters

where
L
P
D

Q
W

=
=
=
=
=
=
=

203

Capillary

length of tube (in.)


differential pressure drop (in water)
tube internal diameter (in.)
viscosity at flowing temperature (centipoise)
3
density at flowing temperature (lbm/ft )
flow rate (gal/min)
flow rate (lbm/h)

Equation 2.9(5) can also be used for calculating a gas


flow capillary element if the value of P is no greater than
10% of the inlet pressure. Otherwise, changes in gas density,
specific volume, and flow velocity cause too many complications in the calculations. While the calculation is in
weight units, this can be easily converted to any desired
scale units.

Temperature
Control
Low
Pressure
Steam
Jet
Mixer

Overflow
to Drain

Filter

Tempering
Coil

Differential
Pressure Transmitter

FIG. 2.9c
Typical capillary with constant temperature bath.

Design Calculations for Liquid Service


Design Parameters
There are a number of guidelines for successful design of a
laminar flowmeter.
1. The differential pressure drop can range from 5 to 800
in. of water (1.24 to 200 kPa).
2. (L/D)/Re should be a minimum of 0.3; for best linearity, a value of 0.6 or greater is preferable. Large L/D
ratios and/or lower Reynolds numbers contribute to
accuracy. For example, the entrance effect for laminar
flow is negligible if (L/ D)/Re > 0.3 and Re < 500.
3. The area of the flow conduit preceding the capillary
should be a minimum of 20 times the capillary area.
4. The differential-pressure instruments pressure connections should be located 100 to 200 capillary diameters from the capillary ends.
5. A filter capable of removing particles 0.1 in. (2.54
mm) or larger than the capillary internal radius should
be installed upstream of the system.
6. The metering system should be sloped up for liquids
to permit gas venting and sloped down for gases to
permit liquid draining.
7. Examination of the Hagen-Poiseuille equation shows
that viscosity is a primary variable; changes in viscosity can result in large flow measurement errors. With
a known fluid or composition, the only thing that
affects viscosity is temperature. For this reason, the
temperature must be known and held essentially constant. This can be done by immersing the metering
system and measuring capillary in a constant temperature bath as shown in Figure 2.9c. If the flow is measured in weight units such as pounds per hour, then
fluid density must be known. Fluid density also varies
with temperature, but controlling the temperature to
fix viscosity will also fix density. With some fluids,
cooling may be required instead of heating, but the
overall principle is the same.

2003 by Bla Liptk

Based on the flow rate and the viscosity of the fluid, select
a tube internal diameter that will result in a Reynolds number
within the laminar range and preferably less than 1200. Calculate the length of tubing required using the selected tube
diameter to ensure that it is a reasonable length and that it
meets the (L/D)/Re criteria. By working back and forth
between the various equations, the system can be tailored to
meet almost any design criteria. For example, let us assume
that it is desired to design a capillary flowmeter to measure
a small liquid catalyst stream, and the basic data for the
catalyst flow is as follows:
Maximum flow capacity: 50 lbm/h
Viscosity: 20 cP at 100F
3
Density: 53.8 lbm/ft
Desired instrument P: 100 in of water
Small-diameter, standard stainless-steel tubing is readily
available and should be used. To design as linear and accurate
a flowmeter as possible, a tube bore that provides a large
(L/D)/Re is desirable. To minimize plugging problems and to
enable the use of a filter that wont clog easily, start by looking
at a 3/16 0.032-in. wall thickness tubing with a nominal
internal diameter of 0.1235 in. From Equation 2.9(1),
Re =

6.32W
6.32 50
=
= 128
0.1235 20
D

2.9(6)

This is well into the laminar range, so the length of the flow
element can be calculated to determine if it will make a
reasonable design. From Equation 2.9(5),
L=

100 0.12354 53.8


PD4
=
= 15.7 in.
5
7.86 10 W 7.86 10 5 20 50
2.9(7)
( L / D) Re = (15.7 / 0.1235)/128 = 0.993

2.9(8)

204

Flow Measurement

This is an easy length to work with in fabricating a meter


element and a constant temperature bath, and it looks like a
reasonable design based on the criteria.

When the fluid exits the capillary, the flow path enlarges.
If the piping is similar to that described under inlet loss, the
loss can be calculated by
Pe =

ERROR SOURCES
Changes in viscosity and density can result in flow measurement errors. Viscosity changes in liquid as a result of temperature can be substantial, while density changes are more
moderate. With gases, the reverse is usually true, with temperature having more influence on density and less on viscosity. The need for careful control of the operating temperature to minimize these effects must be emphasized.
From Equations 2.9(4) and 2.9(5), it can be seen that
internal diameter of the tube is very important, because it is
multiplied to the fourth power. While high-quality tubing will
be very close to published specifications, manufacturing tolerances will result in variations from these dimensions, both
laterally and longitudinally. If the actual effective internal
diameter of the capillary tube differs by 1% from the value
used in the calculation for a given P, an error of about 4%
will result. Therefore, the laminar flowmeter should be calibrated on a known fluid before use, and appropriate design
adjustments should be made as necessary.
To measure the true capillary differential pressure drop
according to the Poiseuille equation, it would be necessary
to put the pressure taps into the capillary at the calculated L
dimension. This is impractical because of the small tubing.
A pressure tap must be perfectly flush with the inside of the
tube and must be clean with no burrs or other projections
into the tube. Otherwise, considerable differential-pressure
measurement error will result. Using practical methods of
constructing a capillary flowmeter, there are three additional
sources of pressure drop in addition to the capillary loss.
These are all additive and will give a greater indicated pressure drop than the capillary flow alone. These three sources
of error are inlet loss, exit loss, and capillary entrance loss.
These losses also contribute to nonlinearity.
There is very little loss from the entrance fitting into the
capillary tube if laminar flow conditions exist. But if the
piping cavity ahead of the capillary is extremely large relative
to the capillary (approximating a reservoir) and the fluid
velocity is thus extremely low (approaching zero), there can
1
be an inlet effect and pressure loss. This is a result of the
sudden contraction from the large reservoir to the small tube
bore, forming a bell-mouth shape approach flow. This loss
can be expressed as

Pi =

2.8 10 7 W 2
D4

2.9(9)

This equation is derived from Bernoullis equation for flow


out of a reservoir.

2003 by Bla Liptk

5.6 10 7 W 2
D4

2.9(10)

Entrance loss occurs in addition to the normal capillary


pressure drop in the initial fluid path distance or, to state it
in another way, for a short distance the pressure drop is higher
2,3
than that predicted by the Poiseuille Equation. The additional loss is due to the work expended in the formation of
the parabolic velocity distribution profile characteristic of
laminar flow. It can be expressed in terms of an equivalent
length of capillary, Leq, added to that calculated by the Poiseuille
equation. Refer to Figure 2.9d for determining the Leq.
The following equation can be used for the pressure drop:

Pen =

1.96 10 7 W 2
D4

2.9(11)

Table 2.9e can be used as a quick guide for judging the


design factors that will minimize overall entrance effects. For
the conditions given in the table, the error involved will be
less than 1%. In general, the effect of all of the above errors
will be minimized if the Reynolds number is low, the laminar
flow element is long, and the pressure drop is high. The overall

Leq /D
Reference 3
0.40
0.35
0.30
Recommended for
Re < 800

Recommended for
Re > 1000

0.25
0.20

0.15
100

Re 1000

10,000

FIG. 2.9d
Equivalent length of capillary (Leq).

TABLE 2.9e
L/D Ratio to Minimize Entrance Effect
Re

10

50

100

500

1000

2000

L/D>

15

75

150

750

1500

3000

2.9 Laminar Flowmeters

error can be calculated by this equation as


Percent error =

TABLE 2.9f
Critical Reynolds Number vs. Coil Curvature
Ratio

Pi + Pe + Pen 100 0.367W 100


=
L
P
2.9(12)

Coil
Curvature Ratio (Dc/D)

RANGE EXTENSION TECHNIQUES

2003 by Bla Liptk

Critical
Reynolds Number (Re)c

Straight Pipe

2100

2000

2700

1000

2900

500

3200

100

4600

50

5700

10

10,000

15,000

10
8
6
Le /L

Two techniques are used to expand the range capability of


laminar flow elements. One is to use a number of capillary
tubes in parallel. The other is to use a tight helical coil capillary. The choice of technique depends on such factors as
desired flow rate, nonlinearity requirements, Reynolds number, capillary length, and system space design limitations.
If the amount of flow desired is greater than can be
conveniently handled by a single capillary, the flow can be
4
split into many smaller units as necessary. Units with matrix
elements (Figure 2.9a) or with more than 900 individual capillary tubes have been built and used successfully. The
mechanical construction of multiparallel capillaries can be a
problem. Tube packing voids may not affect meter operation
but add considerable difficulty to calculating the meter range.
Normally, it is best to eliminate the voids by filling the spaces
with solder, braze material, or plastic resin; the filler material
chosen will depend on fluid compatibility and operating conditions. Overall, it is a tricky mechanical design.
Coiling a length of straight capillary results in a flow
phenomenon called the Dean effect. When a fluid flows
through a curved pipe or coil, a secondary circulation of fluid,
known as a double eddy, takes place at right angles to the
main direction of flow. This circulation accounts for the fact
that the pressure drop in curved pipe is greater than in a
corresponding length of straight pipe. The Dean effect stabilizes laminar flow and raises the Reynolds number at which
turbulent flow starts. It has been established that this will
allow properly designed coiled capillaries to be operated up
5
to a Reynolds number of 15,000. The Reynolds number at
which laminar flow can be sustained for various coil curvature ratios is called the critical Reynolds number. It is a
function of the internal diameter of the tube and the coil
tightness or diameter. Table 2.9f gives the approximate critical Reynolds number at which laminar flow can be sustained
for various coil curvature ratios.
In this table, D is the tube inside diameter, and Dc is the
mean coil diameter, centerline to centerline. From a practical
viewpoint, the ratio of D/Dc = 1/9 is equivalent to the maximum allowable critical Reynolds number of 15,000 and can
be used as a safe design in most cases.
The pressure drop of laminar flow through coils can be
expressed in terms of an equivalent length, Le, of straight
pipe of the same diameter and shape which will have the
same friction loss as the curved pipe. The ratio of the equivalent to actual coil length, Le /L is a function of the Dean

205

4
3
2
1
10

3 4

6 8 102
2 3 4
Re/(Dc/D)1/2

6 8 103

3 4

FIG. 2.9g
Equivalent lengths for curved pipe.
1/2

number, or Re(DC /D) , as shown in Figure 2.9g. This curve


is accurate to about 5%.
The equation for calculating the length of a coiled capillary
required to meet a specific metering design is expressed by
L=

PD4
7.86 10 5 WC

2.9(13)

where C = the coil factor correction.


The coil factor correction is a function of the term
1/2
1/2
Re(D/DC) . Refer to Figure 2.9h for C vs. Re(D/DC) or to
Figure 2.9i for C versus Re for various D/Dc ratios. In very
small capillaries, the coil diameter can be the nominal value,
since exact centerline measurement is insignificant.
In laminar flow, the friction factor is a function of Reynolds
number only and is independent of surface roughness.
The friction factor can be expressed as
f = 16/Re

2.9(14)

Therefore, the Fanning equation 2.8(15) can be used as an


alternate means of calculating the capillary element as
shown by

L=

2 Pgc D
4 fV 2

2.9(15)

206

Flow Measurement

8
7
6
5
C
4
3
2
1
10

100

1000

10,000

N Re(D/Dc)1/2

FIG. 2.9h
Correction factors for coiled capillary flowmeter (data adapted from
reference 5).

CONCLUSION

0.10
0.08
0.06

8
7

D
0.04

6
C
5

Dc

0.02

4
3
2
1
100

1000

NRe

10,000

FIG. 2.9i
Correction factors for coiled capillary flowmeters (data adapted
from reference 5).

where
L = capillary length (ft)
2
P = pressure drop (lbf/ft )
2
gc = gravity constant 32.17 (ft/sec )
D = capillary internal diameter (ft)
= fluid density (lbm/ft)
V = fluid velocity (ft/sec)

COMMERCIALLY AVAILABLE UNITS


In the past decade, the use of laminar flowmeters has greatly
expanded, and the number of suppliers has also increased.
Their applications range from the testing of internal combustion

2003 by Bla Liptk

equipment to semi-conductor manufacturing, leak testing,


and fan or blower calibration. Standard units are available in
several materials, including stainless steel. They can be provided with a variety of connections and in sizes ranging from
0.25 to 16 in. (6 to 400 mm).
In terms of airflow capability, these units range from 5
cc/min to approximately 65 cubic meters/min (2285 SCFM).
Pressure differentials generated by the laminar flow elements
are usually under 20 in. of water (510 mm of water). The
recommended installation practice is to provide 10 to 15
diameters of straight pipe upstream of the flow element.
Installation of a filter is also recommended at the meter inlet.
In engine testing, a backfire trap is also desirable to prevent
carbon deposits on the matrix element.
The measurement error is usually between 0.5 and 1%
of actual flow within a 10:1 range. However, this performance
is a function of both the quality of calibration of the system
and of the precision of the d/p detector.

Laminar flowmeters are highly useful in measuring low flow


rates of liquids and gases. Design of the elements is based
on the use of the Reynolds number and Poiseuilles law.
Design for most units is relatively simple, but fabrication of
a complete unit and system can be complex. Simple capillary
units can be fabricated by the user, but most require manufacturers skills and design knowledge.
It is highly recommended that the final system be calibrated with the same type of fluid as the fluid upon which
the sensor will operate, such as air or nitrogen for gas services
and water for liquid services. After such calibration, the conversion is easily made to the actual fluid. The critical consideration is to calibrate the unit under conditions that will
approximate the actual in-service Reynolds number of the
application. Some sources of calibration services, other than
the manufacturers, are the National Institute of Standards and
Technology (NIST), Edison ESI, and the Colorado Engineering Experiment Station, Inc. (CEESI).
References
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.

Kreith, F. and Eisenstadt, R., Trans. ASME, 10701078, 1967.


Willoughby, D. A. and Kittle, P. A., Industrial and Eng. Fundamentals,
6(2), 304306, 1967.
Rivas, M. A. Jr. and Shapiro, A. H., Trans. ASME, 489497, April 1956.
Greef, C. E., and Hafckman, J. R., ISA J., 7578, August 1965.
Powell, H. N. and Browne, W. G., Rev. Sci. Instr., 28(2), 138141, 1957.

Bibliography
Bowen, LeBaron R., Designing laminar-flow systems, Chemical Eng., June
12, 1961.
Cushing, M., The future of flow measurement, Flow Control, January 2000.

2.9 Laminar Flowmeters

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Polentz, L. M., Capillary flowmetering, Instrum. Control Syst., April
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2003 by Bla Liptk

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Spitzer, D. W., Flow Measurement, 2nd ed., ISA Press, Research Triangle
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