An airlock is a device which permits the passage of people and objects between a pressure vessel and its surroundings while minimizing the change of pressure in the vessel and loss of air from it. The lock consists of a small chamber with two airtight doors in series which do not open simultaneously.
An airlock may be used for passage between environments of different gases rather than different pressures, to minimize or prevent the gases from mixing.
An airlock may also be used underwater to allow passage between an air environment in a pressure vessel and a water environment outside, in which case the airlock can contain air or water. This is called a floodable airlock or an underwater airlock, and is used to prevent water from entering a submersible vessel or an underwater habitat.
Before opening either door, the air pressure of the airlock—the space between the doors—is equalized with that of the environment beyond the next door to open. This is analogous to a waterway lock: a section of waterway with two watertight gates, in which the water level is varied to match the water level on either side.
A gradual pressure transition minimizes air temperature fluctuations (see Boyle's law), which helps reduce fogging and condensation, decreases stresses on air seals and allows safe verification of pressure suit and space suit operation.
Where a person who is not in a pressure suit moves between environments of greatly different pressures, an airlock changes the pressure slowly to help with internal air cavity equalization and to prevent decompression sickness. This is critical in scuba diving, and a diver may have to wait in an airlock for some hours in line with decompression tables.
Airlocks are used in
A four-door airlock (with, therefore, three interior chambers) was proposed by science fiction writer H. Beam Piper in his novel Uller Uprising. The fictional atmosphere inside the structure was human-breathable, while the outside atmosphere was highly toxic. Only one door of the airlock opened at a time, and the middle chamber of the three would always contain a vacuum to minimize traces of the exterior atmosphere reaching the habitat.
Published in July 2009.
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