In a cyclonic separator, typically air laden with dirt and dust is pumped through the top of a vertical cylinder with a conical bottom. The fast-moving air enters the chamber at the top of the cylinder and begins rotating violently. As that happens, a mini tornado or cyclone forms.

The air and dust spin wildly in a circular, spiraling motion. Because the particulates have more mass than air molecules, a greater force is needed to keep the debris moving in a circle. But there is no such force inside the cyclonic chamber. As the whirling mass of air spins, the heavier particles start to diverge and move toward the wall of the chamber. Because these large, dense particulates have too much inertia to follow the curvature of the air, they’re thrown against the sides. Smack, the particles slam into the wall, sliding to the bottom of a dust trap or bin.

Finally, the “clean air” near the bottom of the cyclone changes direction and moves up the center of the cylinder to an exhaust tube or outlet, which is usually connected to a filter that catches any remaining fine particles.