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A centrifuge is a piece of equipment, generally driven by an electric motor (some older models were spun by hand), that puts an object in rotation around a fixed axis, applying a force perpendicular to the axis. The centrifuge works using the sedimentation principle, where the centripetal acceleration causes more dense substances to separate out along the radial direction (the bottom of the tube). By the same token, lighter objects will tend to move to the top (of the tube; in the rotating picture, move to the centre).

In the picture shown, the rotating unit, called the rotor, has fixed holes drilled at an angle (to the vertical). Test tubes are placed in these slots and the rotor is spun. As the centrifugal force is in the horizontal plane and the tubes are fixed at an angle, the particles have to travel only a little distance before they hit the wall and drop down to the bottom. These angle rotors are very popular in the lab for routine use.



Protocols for centrifugation typically specify the amount of acceleration to be applied to the sample, rather than specifying a rotational speed such as revolutions per minute. This distinction is important because two rotors with different diameters running at the same rotational speed will subject samples to different accelerations. During circular motion the acceleration is the product of the radius and the square of the angular velocity and it is traditionally named "relative centrifugal force" (RCF). The acceleration is measured in multiples of "g" (or × "g"), the standard acceleration due to gravity at the Earth's surface, and it is given by


This relationship may be written as


History and predecessors

English military engineer Benjamin Robins (1707–1751) invented a whirling arm apparatus to determine drag. In 1864, Antonin Prandtl invented the first dairy centrifuge in order to separate cream from milk. In 1879, Gustaf de Laval demonstrated the first continuous centrifugal separator, making its commercial application feasible.

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