Hydrodynamic cavitation inside a freefloating water drop produced in microgravity. (Credits: ESA, Danail Obreschkow, Philippe Kobel, Nicolas Dorsaz, Aurèle de Bosset, Mohamed Farhat).
Cavitation is a general term used to describe the behavior of voids or bubbles in a liquid. 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. Such cavitation often occurs in pumps, propellers, impellers, and in the vascular tissues of plants. Non-inertial cavitation is the process where 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.
Inertial cavitation was first studied by Lord Rayleigh in the late 19th century when he considered the collapse of a spherical void within a liquid. When a volume of liquid is subjected to a sufficiently low pressure it may rupture and form a cavity. This phenomenon is termed cavitation inception and may occur behind the blade of a rapidly rotating propeller or on any surface vibrating underwater with sufficient amplitude and acceleration. Other ways of generating cavitation voids involve the local deposition of energy such as an intense focussed laser pulse (optic cavitation) or with an electrical discharge through a spark. Vapor gasses evaporate into the cavity from the surrounding medium, thus the cavity is not a perfect vacuum but has a relatively low gas pressure. Such a low pressure cavitation bubble in a liquid will begin to collapse due to the higher pressure of the surrounding medium. As the bubble collapses, the pressure and temperature of the vapor within will increase. The bubble will eventually collapse to a minute fraction of its original size, at which point the gas within dissipates into the surrounding liquid via a rather violent mechanism, which releases a significant amount of energy in the form of an acoustic shock-wave and as visible light. At the point of total collapse, the temperature of the vapor within the bubble may be several thousand kelvin, and the pressure several hundred atmospheres.
Inertial cavitation can also occur in the presence of an acoustic field. Microscopic gas bubbles which are generally present in a liquid will be forced to oscillate due to an applied acoustic field. If the acoustic intensity is sufficiently high, the bubbles will first grow in size, and then rapidly collapse. Hence, inertial cavitation can occur even if the rarefraction in the liquid is insufficient for a Rayleigh-like void to occur. High power ultrasonics usually utilize the inertial cavitation of microscopic vacuum bubbles for treatment of surfaces, liquids and slurries.
The physical process of cavitation inception is similar to boiling. The major difference between the two is the thermodynamic paths which precede the formation of the vapor. Boiling occurs when the local vapor pressure of the liquid rises above its local ambient pressure and sufficient energy is present to cause the phase change to a gas. Cavitation inception occurs when the local pressure falls sufficiently far below the saturated vapor pressure, a value given by the tensile strength of the liquid.
In order for cavitation inception to occur, the cavitation "bubbles" generally need a surface on which they can nucleate. This surface can be provided by the sides of a container or by impurities in the liquid or by small undissolved microbubble within the liquid. It is generally accepted that hydrophobic surfaces stabilize small bubbles. These pre-existing bubbles start to grow unbounded when they are exposed to a pressure below the threshold pressure, termed Blake's threshold.