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Aerosols and Pressure

Valves and flow control

A liquified propellant such as butane would boil if it was at the normal atmospheric pressure of 1 bar. The liquid cannot boil inside the can because at high pressure the boiling point is increased. When the valve is opened this liquid and the product held in it suddenly move from inside the can,where the pressure is anything up to 10 bar (10 times atmospheric pressure) to outside the can, where the pressure is 1 bar (normal atmospheric pressure).

This high speed flow is controlled by a simple plastic sliding hollow stem with a tiny hole in the side. The hole is blocked by a rubber ring called a gasket. When you press the actuator the stem slides past the gasket and the product flows into the hollow stem and out through the nozzle. A spring pushes the stem up again when you let go.


Valve closed

When the valve is closed the hole in the side of the stem is blocked by the rubber gasket.

Valve open

Outside the can the pressure is 1 bar and propane is suddenly 60 degrees above its boiling point and vaporises instantly. This causes a mix of propellant (now a gas), droplets of liquid propellant still vaporising and the product to accelerate through the nozzle. As the mixture is blasted out of the nozzle it forms tiny droplets that eventually evaporate, leaving just the product.

Droplet size

Droplet size for an aerosol is very important. Large droplets make a wet spray and smaller droplets make a  dryer spray because the propellant vaporises more quickly.

The nozzle is often a precision made plastic part that looks like a simple hole, but behind the hole are specially shaped channels. The escaping propellant and product mix runs into the channels and as they flow towards the hole they force the flow to swirl. This breaks up the flow into smaller droplets.

This is a front and rear view of the nozzle insert with swirling channels.


The cutaway diagram shows the swirling channels in more detail.

Safe minimum droplet size

If the droplets are too small they could be breathed in and reach the alveoli in the lungs. The droplets must not be less than 10 microns (10 millionths of a metre).
Valves are designed to minimise the amount of small droplets. An exception is in asthma inhalers where the spray is designed to penetrate as far into the lungs as possible.


Metered Dose Valve

Image: Coster

This type of spray used a metered dose valve. When the stem is depressed the dosage chamber (green) fills up and then the dose flows into the upper stem.  The chamber cannot refill until the stem is pressed again. Two gaskets are needed to achieve this.

As the propellant leaves the dosage chamber it vaporises rapidly, causing a high speed blast of propellant and fine drug particles. These drugs can reach deep into the lungs where they relive constriction in the bronchioles.

Image: ABPI

To find out more about breathing and asthma visit the ABPI resource here>

The formation of droplets is extremely fast. The propellant is vaporising, forming microscopic bubbles that burst, leaving only the active ingredient behind.


1. What are the three phases that water can have?

2. What are the phases of the propellant in the can?

3 What is your estimate for the diameter of the hole in the stem (stem orifice or IMO) using the scale in the picture?

4. What is your estimate for the diameter of the nozzle hole?

5. If a rain drop is 1mm in diameter, how many times smaller is a 10 micron diameter droplet?

6. Why do asthma inhaler sprays use a metered dose valve?

Research Activity
Find out how the boiling point of water varies with altitude and how this can affect people who live or climb at high altitude.


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This is what the stem and gasket look like. The scale at the bottom is a mm ruler and the green squares are 1 cm. Can you estimate the diameter of the small hole called the internal metering orifice (IMO)?. The gasket is made from a soft rubbery polymer that will not be attacked by the propellant.

Parts supplied by Lindal Group

When the stem is depressed by pushing on the actuator button, the hole drops below the gasket allowing the liquified propellant and product to flow into the stem and out of he nozzle.


This cutaway diagram shows how the gasket bends away from the hole in the stem (IMO) when the stem is pushed down. The product and propellant mix flow into the hollow stem. The spring helps return the stem and the gasket re-seats in the groove to block the hole. The stem is also helped back upwards by the can pressure and high speed flow.

Parts supplied by Lindal Group

Some aerosols have a hole in the valve housing to allow a small amount of propellant vapour to mix into the flow to help break it into droplets. It is called a Vapour Phase Tap (VPT in the diagram) because the propellant is in vapour phase above the liquid phase. The vapour phase tap will not work if the can is held upside down.
Mixing propellant vapour into the flow creates smaller droplets that are dryer and warmer.

The stem sits on top of a spring inside the housing. The housing looks like a castle turret. This is designed to hold the gasket. In the picture above the spring is shown outside because you can't see it inside the housing.

Parts supplied by Lindal Group

The assembly of stem, gasket, spring and housing is pushed into the crown of the can and crimped into place. Crimping means squeezing the metal to grip the housing. You can see the metal gripping the housing.

From the outside the crimp marks can be seen. The actuator has been removed to show the stem.
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