The jet engine is the most technically complex element of modern aircraft and is considered by most to be the symbol that represents modern aviation. One such class of jet engines are turbine engines which derive energy from the pressure created by combusted gas. These engines contain two, often-confused, components called the compressor blade and turbine, those of which work hand in hand during regular operation. In this blog, we will highlight the function of both of these engine components and how their designs differ.
Compression is the second step in the turbine engine thermodynamic cycle. In this step, air from the inlet passes through the compressor in order to increase its pressure. Generally, compressors can either be classified as axial or centrifugal compressor, depending on the method by which they compress air. Axial compressors contain impellers that run parallel to the flow of air, while centrifugal designs rely on impellers that act perpendicular to the axis of rotation. The majority of compressors used on modern aircraft are of axial design.
Turbines are found downstream of the combustion chamber, constituting the last step in the thermodynamic cycle before exhaust. Their function is to extract energy from the hot and fast-moving gas created during combustion and use it to power the intake fan and compressor. While aircraft may be equipped with several rows of turbines, it only takes one turbine stage to power multiple compressor fans. While much of the pressure generated through combustion is lost during the turbine phase, it is still generally twice the pressure of the atmospheric air at intake. This differential is what provides forward thrust to the aircraft.
The biggest difference between the two components is their interaction with pressure. During compression, the fans work to increase air pressure and temperature, thereby increasing the air's energy potential as it travels to the combustion chamber. Conversely, turbines create rotational energy from the decrease in air pressure before it exits the exhaust. Therefore, compressors may be considered devices of consumption because they are powered by turbines, whereas turbines are energy producers.
Another way to think about the difference between compressors and turbines is in terms of fluid dynamics. Since atmospheric air compressor is a gas and follows the laws of fluid dynamics, it is essential to understand how each component interacts with a fluid. Compressors are named as such because they force air molecules together, increasing the mass and decreasing the volume. Using the simple ratio "density=mass/volume," it becomes evident that compressors increase the density of air, which also has a direct relationship with pressure. Likewise, as air passes through the vanes of the turbine, an irreversible change occurs in which the density and pressure decrease to values similar to the intake air.
The calculation for efficiency also differs between the two components. To calculate the efficiency for compressors, one takes the value of ideal work and divides it by the actual work, whereas the opposite is true for turbines. Additionally, compressors can be thought of as preheating devices since pressure and temperature move in the same direction. For the same reason, the air exiting the turbine is cooler.
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