Surge Conditions of Centrifugal and Axial Compressors

Centrifugal and axial compressors must operate within certain parameters dictated by both the constraints of the given application as well as a number of mechanical factors.  In general, integrated control systems allow compressors to navigate dynamically within their stable operating range.   Typical operating ranges for compressors are represented on a plot of volumetric flow rate versus compression ratio.  Compressors have a wide number of applications, from household vacuum cleaners to large 500 MW gas turbine units.  Compression ratios found in refrigeration applications are typically around 10:1, while in air conditioners they are usually between 3:1 and 4:1.  Of course, multiple compressors can be arranged in series to increase the ratio dramatically to upwards of 40:1 in gas turbine engines.  While compressors in different applications range dramatically in their pressure ratios, similar incidents require engineers to carefully evaluate what is the proper operating range for the particular compressor design.

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Figure 1- Typical Performance Map Limits – Compressor Ratio (Rc) vs. Volumetric Flow Rate (Qs)

For intensive applications of centrifugal and axial compressors, the phenomenon of surge resides as one of the limiting boundary conditions for the operation of the turbomachine. Essentially, surge is regarded as the phenomena when the energy contained in the gas being compressed exceeds the energy imparted by the rotating blades of the compressor. As a result of the energetic gas overcoming the backpressure, a rapid flow reversal will occur as the gas expands back through the compressor. Once this gas expands back through to the suction of the compressor, the operation of the compressor returns back to normal. However, if preventative measures are not taken by the appropriate controls system or any implemented mechanical interruptions, the compressor will return to a state of surge. This cyclic event is referred to as surge cycling and can result in serious damage to the rotor seals, rotor bearings, driver mechanisms, and overall cycle operation.

Because of surge and other phenomena such as stall, engineers must embed proper control systems that effectively handle different off-design conditions seen in particular compressor arrangements. Depending on the application, certain compressors will rarely operate away from their design point, and such control systems are not necessary. However, in advanced applications such as large gas turbine unit compressors, controls systems allow the compressor to navigate within a range between the choke, stall, minimum speed, and maximum speed limits. The chart seen in Figure 1 describes the operating range of a compressor using a Rc—Qs map. In many cases, an antisurge valve (ASV) working in conjunction with an antisurge PI controller will action open or closed based on varying transient conditions seen on the compressor. For design purposes, it is vital to understand compressor limits in order to properly develop or outsource a compressor based on the performance metrics needed for the application.

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