A flywheel is a mechanical device which uses the conservation of angular momentum to store rotational energy; a form of kinetic energy proportional to the product of its moment of inertia and the square of its rotational speed. In particular, if we assume the flywheel's moment of inertia to be constant (i.e., a flywheel with fixed mass and second moment of area revolving about some fixed axis) then the stored (rotational) energy is directly associated with the square of its rotational speed.
Since a flywheel serves to store mechanical energy for later use, it is natural to consider it as a kinetic energy analogue of an electrical inductor. Once suitably abstracted, this shared principle of energy storage is described in the generalized concept of an accumulator. As with other types of accumulators, a flywheel inherently smoothes sufficiently small deviations in the power output of a system, thereby effectively playing the role of a low-pass filter with respect to the mechanical velocity (angular, or otherwise) of the system. More precisely, a flywheel's stored energy will donate a surge in power output upon a drop in power input and will conversely absorb any excess power input (system-generated power) in the form of rotational energy.
Common uses of a flywheel include:
- Smoothing the power output of an energy source. For example, flywheels are used in reciprocating engines because the active torque from the individual pistons is intermittent.
- Energy storage systems
- Delivering energy at rates beyond the ability of an energy source. This is achieved by collecting energy in a flywheel over time and then releasing it quickly, at rates that exceed the abilities of the energy source.
- Controlling the orientation of a mechanical system, gyroscope and reaction wheel
Flywheels are typically made of steel and rotate on conventional bearings; these are generally limited to a maximum revolution rate of a few thousand RPM. High energy density flywheels can be made of carbon fiber composites and employ magnetic bearings, enabling them to revolve at speeds up to 60,000 RPM (1 kHz).