Inducer Design Considerations and its Effect on Turbopump Cavitation

Why Use an Inducer?

Suppose you want to build a turbopump to increase the pressure of your working fluid. However, you find that the fluid that you are working with keeps vaporizing in the impellers you design, causing all sorts of performance issues. What can you do in this case? One solution is to design an inducer for your turbopump.

Axial inducers are used in turbopumps upstream of the impeller to avoid cavitation, reduce the inlet pressure requirement, and/or allow for operation at higher turbopump rotational speeds for a given inlet pressure [1]. For a turbopump to function properly, the inlet pressure of the pump must be high enough to avoid cavitation. Cavitation is a phenomenon where vapor bubbles which form in the flowing fluid collapse suddenly – potentially causing surface damage of the impeller, performance degradation, as well as catastrophic failure.

The cavitation phenomenon can be visualized in the below image. The inlet flow (flowing from the left side of the image) hits a blunt body in the fluid channel. This causes the pressure to locally drop and vapor bubbles to form. As the fluid continues to flow (towards the right side of the image), the vapor bubbles collapse once the fluid pressure has sufficiently increased.

Formation of vapor bubbles in cavitating fluid flow
Figure 1: Formation of vapor bubbles in cavitating fluid flow

Now that we understand the problem, how can we make sure these cavitation effects won’t happen in our pump? To predict when cavitation will occur, two parameters are commonly used. The available net positive suction head (NPSHa) describes how much greater the local inlet static pressure is relative to the local inlet vapor pressure. Essentially, NPSHa indicates whether the conditions for cavitation to occur are met. The required net positive suction head (NPSHr) describes the inlet head corresponding to a certain drop in performance capability. A typical NPSHr parameter is the standard 3% NPSH (NPSH3) which describes the inlet pressure corresponding to a 3% drop in head rise capability of the pump at a particular flow rate. Generally, NPSHr is measuring whether there is enough cavitation present to cause a noticeable decrease in the pump’s performance. If the NPSHr is much greater than NPSHa, then significant performance decreases due to cavitation may occur. That is to say, when the available net positive suction head is insufficient, bad things can happen, ranging from performance degradation to outright damage and failure.

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Considerations for Electric Aircraft Fan Design

Due to concerns about air travel’s impact on climate change, research and development into electric aircraft has been ongoing for several years. Within the last decade several startups as well as larger corporations have been developing electric or hybrid electric aircraft (Ros, 2017). The ultimate goal is to Conduct long (>500 miles), full-electric commercial flights with large aircrafts capable of carrying 100’s of passengers, but this will require at least 5-10 more years of development. Luckily, smaller electric aircraft designed for short-range flights (<500 miles) with anywhere from 1-20 passengers have already been tested successfully utilizing electric batteries, a hybrid-electric system and even a hydrogen fuel cell.  With these advances, emission-free air travel is closer than you think.

Electric Aircraft

Examples of full-electric aircraft designs include the Airbus E-Fan 1.0 and E-Fan 1.1 (Airbus Group), shown in Figure 1. These two-person aircraft utilize two ducted, variable-pitch fans, shown in Figure 2. Each fan is powered by a 30-kW electric motor. The motors are powered by several lithium-ion battery packs stored in the wings. While the aircraft only provides an hour of flight time, the batteries can recharge in approximately one hour and can be easily be swapped in and out.

Figure 1: Airbus E-Fan (Airbus Group)
Figure 1: Airbus E-Fan (Airbus Group)
Figure 2: E-Fan ducted fan (Varmin, 2014)
Figure 2: E-Fan ducted fan (Varmin, 2014)

There are several reasons besides climate change why electric aircraft should be developed from a business perspective (Figure 3). Short and mid-range regional flights make up a significant portion of all flights around the world.  The current flight range of electric aircraft is limited to these short and mid-range fights. Additionally, shorter flights spend relatively more time taking off and landing than cruising at high altitudes, which makes shorter trips less energy efficient. While short, regional flights are economically unattractive for large commercial aircraft, a smaller aircraft with less fuel consumption may provide a valuable alternative. Read More